Screen time is a scapegoat for people grappling with parenting problems of the Information Age. Our kids would be better off if we started taking personal responsibility for our parenting difficulties. But this shift requires us to rethink the meaning of screen time in our lives.
I think about this topic a lot, because we have unlimited screen time in our family, so I'm constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the research on screen time to make sure I still think it's a good idea. Here are four lies we tell ourselves about screen time:
Lie #1 Screen time makes kids shallow and dull.
When people say there is “too much” screen time in a kid’s life, what they are really saying is that the kid is missing out on other things in life. Just like sugar, screen time is not inherently bad, it’s that “too much” is bad.
The problem is that what’s too much for a kid who spends the whole day in school is different from too much for a kid who spends the whole day not in school.
Lie #2 Screen time makes kids sedentary.
Take, for example, the American Medical Association’s worry that screen time leads to a sedentary life. But notice how most kids are in school eight hours a day and they come home and have homework. If you sit in school all day then you automatically have a sedentary life. Which means you probably should start to worry about screen time for those kids.
However kids who don’t go to school don’t have to sit all day. So there is no chance that they’ll lead a sedentary life, because it’s counterintuitive to all of us to sit at a desk all day long. Left to make our own choices, few people would be sedentary as much as school requires.
Lie #3 Screen time makes you addicted.
All that school and homework leaves about two hours for everything else. In this case, probably any amount of screen time is too much because of course family time and outside time are higher priorities than video games, and kids who go to school don’t have much time for either of those things.
I talked to my friend Heather about this concept of screen time and she said that a lot of time, the people who are most concerned about their kids’ screen time are women who have husbands who play video games all the time. They don’t want their kids to grow up to be like their husbands.
But the real problem there is not the video games. It’s that the wives feel that the husbands are not spending enough family time with the family. The men could be playing golf, reading magazines, or even working late at night at the office. The problem of family avoidance is not an issue of screen time—it's an issue about values.
Lie #4 School is not screen time.
The real problem with screen time is that it's not all equal. Video games where the kids are totally engaged in problem-solving in order to win are really good for them long term. This is why obsessive video-game playing is the most educational. And screen time when a kid is sitting there watching is brain-numbing.
So the real issue for your kids is about being active vs. passive. We should limit the time when kids are listening only and we should not limit the time when kids are engaged in doing something.
And the first thing to start limiting is school. Because research from the University of Iowa shows that humans are less able to learn from hearing than they are able to learn from tactile or visual stimulation. School is lecturing. Not because it's the best way to learn, but because it's the most cost-effective way to deal with the student-teacher ratios we can afford. The Atlantic points out that the obvious application of this research is that lecturing to a classroom is ineffective teaching.
So instead of thinking in terms of school/not school and screentime/not screentime, think of receiving/doing. Soon you'll understand Lisa Nielsen, technology maven for New York City public schools, who says teachers should use video games in the classroom. And it won't take long before it makes sense to you that kids should have unlimited video game time.