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.


34 replies
  1. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, there’s one study I’ve been looking for in relation to screen time, but cannot find. I realize, it may not exist. But if anyone knows whether it exists or not, it is likely you.

    Are you aware of any studies that cover whether or not “screen time” (regardless of type of screen – television or computer/tablet/etc) has a physical impact on the development of a child’s eyes?

    I’ve largely accepted your perspective on screen time, but I continue with a niggling concern that too much time in front of a screen may have a net negative impact on the development of the eyes.

      • christy
        christy says:

        Heike, appreciate the attempt (albeit backhanded) to help. I meant actual references to real studies. Not popular news articles about studies that aren’t actually referenced. Popular news articles ALWAYS get the results wrong.

        But thanks for the attempt.

    • KateC
      KateC says:

      This link may be what you’re looking for – there is a very extensive bibliography at the end of the chapter.

      On a personal note, my son had a concussion following a sledding accident in Dec. It took him nearly 2 months to not have headaches, and any kind of cognitive effort has been difficult. His neurologist, at Boston Children’s, said that his recovery rate was probably significantly slowed because he was using the computer to play Minecraft for a while, before I finally pulled the plug. His visual memory processing speed declined from the 99+ percentile to the 24th, tested one month after the injury. Today, 3 months out, he finally seems to be back to normal. It’s been a scary time. The neurologist also said that the long-term effects of screen use seem to be worse the younger the child is, but since much of the use is relatively new, there are not many longitudinal studies that have published their results. My question is, if screen use can do this kind of thing to a brain that is documented as bruised, what is it doing to our “healthy” brains?

  2. Lisa S.
    Lisa S. says:

    I completely agree with you about the taboo against unlimited screen-time. I think these studies are applicable to children from households whose parents don’t or can’t balance the screen time with real life experiences. It takes a lot of extra money and time to take kids on day trips, pay for lessons, send them to camps or take vacations. For some kids, screen time becomes one of the few things they can do for pleasure that is safe (gaming is done at home) and it doesn’t cost a ton of money. My family is not well-off but we try to do what we can to expose them to the world.

    My kids are avid gamers and it’s okay with me. Technology is their world and I want them to embrace it.

  3. Lisha
    Lisha says:

    This is wonderful and mindbending for me. Thank you. I recently started homeschooling and I’m soaking up everything I can. I just came across your blog and i love your perspectives. Thanks for bending my mind!

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    4 lies? Not 3 or 5? You almost always do lists of odd numbers!

    I have relaxed the screen-time rules for my two boys still at home over the past year or so because I can see two things: (1) game problem solving is valuable and (2) they are often online with all their friends.

    But I’m still of a mind that balance is important. I tell them to get out and ride their bikes, or go do things f2f with their friends, or sometimes just play a game of Scrabble with their old dad.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s very bad to do even numbers. Humans comprehend odd numbers better. It’s some sort of science rule but I can’t remember it or I’d link to it in Wikidpedia.

      Anyway, I usually write even numbers and my editor cuts the one that is most boring and then we have an odd number. But on this one, he cut two :)


  5. CristenH
    CristenH says:

    “Our kids would be better off if we started taking responsibility for our parenting difficulties.” In my limited experience as an unschooling parent (my oldest of 3 kids is 6, been living the lifestyle for 3 years), this idea is the key to whether one understands and succeeds with unschooling, or will never get/prosper with it. With very young children, many parents are willing to do the “gentle” speak with their toddlers, but ultimately they still want to be in control, and be obeyed. A velveteen stick, if you will. The few times parents struggling with a 3.5 year old ask for advice, they are all for the ideas of filling the child’s cup, of setting age appropriate expectations, and of balancing boundaries with freedom and exploration. But as soon as I talk about staying present while giving the child space to have their feelings about a boundary, of learning to stop being triggered by the very big emotions, and doing the work on the parents side to let the child know that their parent is capable of remaining calm and present in the storm, the parent no longer wishes to talk about it. I am not one to go around giving advice, and I do try to be gentle. But here’s the thing. Many parents believe the fight is parenting. And that letting go of the fight is to stop parenting. That would be true if the parent just stopped engaging in power struggles to avoid the emotions, both of the child and their own. The other option is for the parent to try to understand why their child’s big emotions are so triggering, and work that out, so at eventually you may be present and not get hooked. Then, the child is able to do many things: let it all out so they can just move on, stop needing to trigger their parent to find out how safe they are, or grow out of that difficult developmental phase. The parent gets a ton of personal growth, and the opportunity to actually enjoy their kid, and learn who they are. This is the same as the battle over an older kid’s time. This struggle settles in as lifestyle once a kid enters school, starting in kindergarten. It is no wonder schooled kids use TV and video games to check out. They have so little control over their lives, they need an escape. The strongest opposition I read in the comments to this blog are from parents who believe the struggle to control their kid’s time is parenting. And if that stops, then what the heck is the parent up to? Unlimited access to technology can seem recklessly negligent coming from that world of struggle. Now the parents’ work is to trust their kids, in the face of the fear of the unknown. To continue to watch, listen and engage with their kid to judge what type of guidance would be most useful/helpful. To practice seeing their growing child as a unique, autonomous individual, not a canvas for the parents’ wishes. Perhaps kids with this much autonomy won’t wish to use technology to numb themselves. It is up to parents to decide what they want to model, is the world one of endless struggle where giving up your own interests while sucking it up is the hallmark of successful adulthood, or could a child become a successful citizen by seeing themselves as trustworthy, interesting, passionate and resourceful, as they were seen in the eyes of their parents?

  6. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    There is an article about why “Screens Should Be Banned For Kids Under 12” that has been circulating among many of my Facebook friends, and it makes me rage.
    Instead of starting a comment war (my first impulse), I will post a link to this. People get so, so high and mighty about screen time and it is such a bullshit scapegoat to completely different and complex problems.

  7. Sarah @ Little Bus on the Prairie
    Sarah @ Little Bus on the Prairie says:

    “The problem of family avoidance is not an issue of screen time—it’s an issue about values.”

    This rings very true.

    I also loved Heather Sanders comment on a previous post of yours ( regarding unlimited screen time that advocated setting limits for those who know that their kids do better with them (the category I fall into for now).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Why are you anonymous for this comment? It seems fine to me to use your name for this one.

      I changed the photo because it’s absurd that I reused a photo. It was an accident.

      But that said, I don’t think privacy matters to Generation Y, so it definitely will be over by the time the next generation grows up. I’ve written about this topic a lot, but suffice it to say, protecting your privacy online is useless: advertisers already know what you buy, what you read, where you go, etc. And I think privacy is overvalued – and maybe senselessly valued – by older generations.

      There’s a woman attending Duke and a frat guy outed her as a porn star. Her life has been hell, and she wrote a great great post about how she gets to tell her own story and define herself. This is what has replaced privacy for Generation Y: the right to tell one’s own story.

      Here’s the link from the woman:

      And, while I’m at it. The kid who outed his schoolmate is apparently a huge consumer of porn, and this is a great letter from an owner of a porn web site that he subscribes to:


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        yes, but all those people are over 18 and thus adults. And they volunteered and had a chance to voice their own opinion – many people whose privacy is violated do not have that chance. And surprisingly – even the GenY students I work with, all very internet savvy, quite value their privacy and do not want every aspect of their lives to be public. Sure, there are a lot of people who are quite exhibitionist and purposely publish, film, report, all aspects of their lives – I don’t mind as long as they do it of their free will. That does not mean that everybody wants to follow this trend. That said, privacy is a personal decision – and if “google” knows my favourite shampoo, or deodorant, is probably not really the aspects of privacy many people are concerned with.

  8. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    Hi, I am new to your blog. I saw the link on Pinterest and had to see what the article was about (good title.) I found it rather interesting that the American Pediatric Assoc. changed their guidelines from 2 hours of screen time per day to 2 hours of entertainment screen time per day–I would imagine this has a lot to do with schools giving kids devices with screens to use all day while they are in school as well as to do homework on at night. School kids have a ton of screen time now.
    Thanks for linking to the research on learning styles. I am very interested in how boys learn so will be checking that out. Glad to see someone with an opposing viewpoint on scrrens.

    • Heather Sanders
      Heather Sanders says:

      Sheila – That IS rather interesting. I am going to have to look that up (If you have a direct link will you post it?) because that is a significant change to make that could easily double, triple, quadruple a kid’s time online. It “was” bad, but now it’s “good” IF it is isn’t entertainment??? Hmmm… Do they also define the difference between “types” of screen time? If so, I wonder who got stuck with that job. :)

  9. Sarah Craighead Dedmon
    Sarah Craighead Dedmon says:

    I homeschool two boys. I absolutely agree that video games are not passive.

    I lost about 4 weeks of my life to a Game Boy with Tetris on it in 1993. I am sure those games still exist, but the children in my home never stop talking and laughing when they’re playing video games, it’s an entirely active and social experience. But yes, like public school, it is also sedentary.

    I also often use the sugar analogy with regard to video games, and I often say we impose some limitations for what the games crowd out, not because they’re inherently bad. But I do think that the games have another similarity to sugar, and that’s the cravings. My boys lose their ability to find more subtle things to do when they’ve overdosed on screen time. They’re jumpy, twitchy to get back to the game.The analogies to modern children and sugary food are too obvious to bore you with.

    I accept your argument that children should be allowed unlimited access to games in the belief that I do not know what the future might hold for this generation, and because I am not a futurist, but I consider that you are. But, I leave my comfort with the idea in the land of theory because in my own (1970-born) life, I cannot fully quiet my mind when I’m clicking on a screen all day. Without a quiet mind, I cannot hear my instincts, and without my instincts, I’m ungrounded.

    I feel certain that this generation of children – especially our homeschoolers – will need to rely on their own instincts in life even more than our generation. They may be able to hear over that din, but I can’t hear enough over it to teach them. So, for now, we limit our game time to weekends.

    An alternate title to this article might be, “4 Ways in Which Public School is Like One Long Video Game”. Except, that sounds more fun than the real thing.

  10. Anne
    Anne says:

    When I was raising my daughter, now a freshman in college, I was surrounded by the screen police screaming how it was going to ruin my daughter’s life. My instinct was that there was absolutely no problem, provided the other parts of her life – playing, friends, school work (yes) – were working; and as a result, she probably watched more TV (that was her chosen screen until an adolescent) than almost any child of her generation. And today, she’s an awesome, multi-faceted, young woman with a clear purpose and going for it sense of herself and life.
    Screen police – get over it!

  11. Kirsten
    Kirsten says:

    I’m not questioning the value of screen time, but I do wish to politely object to the outdated cliche of “sedentary” school life. You say in your article: “If you sit in school all day, you automatically have a sedentary life” but this does not reflect how children are taught in schools today.
    My children go to school in Australia, and the emphasis is on active hands-on learning. For example, yesterday my kindergarten daughter did maths involving buckets of water and relays, my 7 yo son was outdoors with his science class observing insects, my 11 year old was on a bike-riding excursion and my high school daughter was cooking and waitressing for her hospitality class before a frisbee tournament! Besides this, they act in plays, perform in dances and bands, actively participate in fundraising, have daily athletics activities and do hands-on learning activities in and out of the classroom. This is hardly an “automatically sedentary life.”
    I am intrigued by the home-schooling/ unschooling lifestyle and I have a lot of respect for your choice of education but I’m tired of continually coming up against this stereotype image of children sitting at desks meekly memorising long meaningless recitations. This is not how the school system is today – it wasn’t even like that when I was at school.
    Anyway, excuse my rant…Maybe it is different in the US!

    • Cynthia
      Cynthia says:

      What you are describing in Australia is not the norm in the U.S. Yes, there are some schools where there is more physical freedom, however the norm has always been limited physical opportunity, or *genuine* child initiated social opportunity. Decades ago (I was born in 1969) there was more activity due to more recess time (including time on the playground upon arrival via bus and entering building) and gym class. Of course there are after school activities (many activities being town/org./business provided, but we now have a huge problem with over-scheduled kids. Of course, a huge wedge of that problem pie is due to the parents.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Agreed with the other reply. Australian schools are very different from American schools. My husband is Australian and we live in the U.S. Our 2nd grader gets 20 minutes of free play per day and (if he’s lucky) 2 days of P.E. a week (because it rotates with Art and Music). They don’t do thinks like bike excursions and there is very little “hands on” learning in my son’s school. And, it’s considered one of the best public elementary schools where we live. Once they get to middle (which starts in grade 5 where I am) and high school, there is even less opportunity for physical education and no free play. If you are in band, you often do that instead of P.E. When I was in high school, there was one semester of P.E. required in the entire 4 years of high school. I had NO other activity during the day, other than changing classes. Just classes, sitting behind a desk. Yes, American schools are mostly sedentary.

  12. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    Point number 3 doesn’t refute or remove the concern that games can be addictive.

    Here’s another concern about games I’d like to see you address: the fucked up culture that exists in some of the gaming communities. You know, the type that use ‘gay’ as an insult every 5 seconds?

  13. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    Penelope, this quote, “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.”, is a powerful blog post hook because it hits where it hurts; self.

    I’m online in one way or another for more hours of the day than I’m not. This may taint my view a bit, but I struggle with the hypocrisy of many parents who fuss at their kids for their screen time. Do they not realize how many hours a day THEY spend checking their email, Facebook, blogs, texting friends, pulling up coupons, checking their stocks, etc…because all of that is screen time.

    We do not have unlimited “gaming” time in our family, but that is only one “screen”. When my son has wrapped up his allotted time on Xbox, he can shift to something else. If we’ve found a book series he’s interested in, he may move on to a book, however, within another couple of hours he may be on the iPad watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, or in our bedroom streaming one of his shows on Amazon Prime. ALL OF IT is screen time.

    Each child is different. Each child’s screen time preference is different. My girls could care less about Xbox, but their smartphones never leave their side, nor does mine. One of them watches Vine videos and records YouTube videos of her guitar pieces all day. The other texts, texts, texts, looks through design/art/fashion blogs, and Snapchats (oh, the horror).

    When we gather for dinner, there are 4 smartphones on the bar, in pockets, or on the table, because honestly, it has become an extension of ourselves. That said THIS IS THE WORLD they live in, so we don’t want to run from it, and as parents, we talk with them about ALL of it…ALL THE TIME. That’s one of our roles; to prepare them for life as it is NOW, not what we grew up with–not 2 decades ago; now.

  14. Chris
    Chris says:

    Hi, Penelope,
    Great article. Thanks!
    Did you see these articles by Peter Gray:

    My boys have total freedom when it comes to screen time. The time they spend on games/tv/ipad vary A LOT. Sometimes they forget they have ipads. Other times they will watch a series from beginning to end (like Avatar).

    One thing I suggest for parents who are skeptical, is to spend time in their kids’ interest zone for a day or two. Play the games with them. Watch the TV/movie with them. Engage them in conversation about the game/show.

  15. Heather
    Heather says:

    Anyone who says video games are sedentary haven’t seen my kids play! They do NOT sit to play. At a minimum they are standing, but more often than not they are bouncing, jumping and spinning with their character. I worry more about my furniture when they are gaming than when they are Nerf swordfighting!

    On top of that, it is never a solitary experience. Even one player games draw a crowd. They all jump and leap and cheer together. I don’t love gaming because they will forsake other obligations in favor of games. But if I am truly honest with myself, I would struggle to get them into their shoes and out the door for Gym & Swim even without games. They are just as capable of getting completely immersed in a good book.

    I wonder if the 1st generation of gamers sit passively when playing because gaming started on the PC. But today’s controllers do not require chaining yourself to a chair! Not to mention the hands-free options.

  16. Michelle R
    Michelle R says:

    This is an issue going on in our house right now! My oldest son is homeschooled, but the other two are still in public school (hoping to convince them to homeschool with me soon…I want it to be their choice) The main problem is with my middle son. He would prefer to come home from school and play video games in his room until bedtime. I would prefer to spend some time with him! (and I don’t want to spend that time sitting in a dark room staring at a screen killing people) So I take issues with your myths above. Lie #3 talks about women not wanting kids to grow up like their fathers (well, that part I agree with! My husband walked out on us because, you know, “you gotta make yourself happy”. Anyway, that’s for another time) But my Ex hates video games, too. I understand that video games can provide great skills…multi-tasking, quick decision making, etc. I don’t deny that there is good from the games. But what I want some balance. Like I said, I want to spend time with my kids…sitting at the dinner table talking, laughing, engaging…I want to run around outside on bikes and skateboards and scooters now that the snow is melting…I want my kids to interact with each other (beyond the video games)…I want to go on hikes with the dog and the kids…and go do things beyond the confines of my son’s 12×12 room. Just because I want to limit screen time, does not mean I must be an over-controlling bitch who wants to steal all the happiness from her children! I feel like it is all just the oppisite!

  17. Kristina
    Kristina says:

    I’m thinking along the same lines as Michelle R. I agree the active video games are worlds apart and far preferable to passive watching but it seems different from other active pursuits in that he will not ever, ever stop doing it of his own accord. Not to eat, not to sleep, not to go to the bathroom, not to interact with others. Not ever. Not until it is pried from his hands and then comes the withdrawal: nasty, rude, irritable behavior. Why would I want to have a child if there is no interaction, no fun, no relationship? He only gets to do it when his dad is here and he will play the entire time: 2, 3, 4, 5 hours; however long he’s here. What if I let him have it? That’s it? That’s all there is? Video games and fighting and prying video games away to force a snarling kid to eat and go to bed? Why? What’s the point? All that time reading and playing and singing and making crafts and then, at age 4, it’s all over. Just video games, begging for video games, angry about not having video games. No thanks.

  18. sarah
    sarah says:

    I have to strongly disagree, yes there may be some good things about screen time, but it should be very limited. Let your kids find joy in playing, using their imagination, going outdoors, building things, working, being useful. We will very rarely play a math or geography or reading game, but that’s it. We do hands on learning and play real life learning games. I do think video games are addictive, and its because I’ve seen it with my own kids. They are allowed to play games on my parents tablets when they visit, and that’s all they want to do. It’s not because my husband is addicted, thankfully my husband could care less about video games, I got lucky! (and would love for my kids to end up just like him). And I’m sorry but its not true socializing if there all staring at a screen, no matter how active! What about sword fighting with sticks, tag, kick the can, and just being kids. Playing legislate, or dolls, and so on. I can’t believe anyone would think 2 hours of screen time a day is ok! My poor kids will get that maybe once a week when we watch a movie, then the rest of the days probably add up to 2-4 hours depending on the week (including school time). They don’t mind at all. But then they dont know any different. I think we all parent differently and its ok for your children, and maybe they’re good at limiting themselves, but a lot of these reasons sound more like excuses to me.

  19. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    I am having such a hard time getting my 9yo ADHD type kid to play video games. He has them and likes them, but I find he prefers to just watch the videos of other people playing them. Now he wants -begs and pleads!- for pixelmon (Minecraft download for PC). I have zero interest in it and I actually hate that my kids lack imagination on how to actually play without electronics. I am usually the one to have to introduce them to games or imaginative play without electronics while in the house.
    It’s like their brains become so lazy and docile unable to entertain themselves. They mope and whine when I tell them to go outside. But as soon as they do they are out and playing no problem and enjoy themselves. I often sit on the fence about electronic entertainment. Some days I think it’s ok and other days I despise it.
    Do I let my son try to figure out how to install pixalmon simply because I want him to problem solve? I don’t even know if it’s safe to download.


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