Screen time: It’s not about how much. It’s about how.

This is a guest post by Lisa Nielsen. She’s in charge of technology and teacher training for the New York City public schools, and she is the author of  the book Teaching Generation Text. None of the opinions in this post reflect the views, opinions, or endorsement of her employer. 

There’s nothing the press likes better than a story that generates real parental panic…especially when it has the stamp of science to give a the panic an extra edge.

That’s exactly what happened when the media (Scientific American, Wall Street Journal, CNN, New York Times) ran a story about the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations on children and screen time. One to two hours a day for children older than 2, they said, and no screen time at all for those younger than 2. Longer than that is dangerous to their health and their development.

A parent today reading this probably had one of these reactions:

1.  You are a failure because your kid is in front of screens much more than 1 or 2 hours a day.
2.  You don’t have computers or televisions in the house so you’re good.


3.  Seriously? What year is this? Who is doing this research?

If you fit into the third reaction, you are likely a parent who has seen amazing learning from screen time for your kids: building, creating, coding, reading, writing, and more.

Why would parents want to limit that?

We wouldn’t.

So why would the AAP make such out-of-touch recommendations?

This year Dimitri Christakis, AAP Council on Communication and Media member, revealed new information about the recommendations. He confessed to that the research that lead to the recommendations was conducted before anyone knew the iPad, or similar interactive screen devices, existed.

While his view on television time stands, he says that since screens are now more than just devices to passively intake information, he has a different view. He explains that today, screens “can be used to read books to children, and high-quality apps are similar to toys. T

herefore, the AAP needs to consider how these devices are used instead of discouraging their use across the board. We don’t want to risk appearing so out of touch that we’re irrelevant and people won’t take our advice seriously.”

Unfortunately, that’s already happened. As those who read the recommendations will notice, they are right out of the 20th century squarely focused on passive television viewing and simple video games.

American Association of Pediatrics aren’t the only ones on the wrong track.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

They had one group of kids go off to a nature camp interacting for five days. The other group of kids spent life as a they usually would.

Because the nature kids read emotions better, researchers jumped to the conclusion that the culprit was screentime. It’s more likely that the most important factor was that the kids were in an engaging outdoor environment, interacting and learning together, a circumstance that doesn’t often happen within the walls of schools.

So, are screens really the culprit or do we need to give kids more time together, outdoors? Brain researcher John Medena has found that that activity, movement, and exercise is crucial for boosting brain power. But the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Outdoors and tech can go certainly go hand and hand. There are amazing apps (like this one) to help identify species of plants and animals. Young people like “Animal Austin” are bringing their phones out on an adventure, to capture their learning via video that they can share with the world to learn nature facts.

And while it is important to read a person’s facial signs, in today’s world it is just as important for youth to become savvy in the nature of this new language: understanding and conveying expression in online communication.

Some common sense advice comes to us from Zero to Three, a nonprofit research organization focused on infants, toddlers and their families. They recently (2014) published Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight. Finally, research that acknowledges not all screen time is the same. Their advice: Screen time is most effective when adults and children use electronic devices together. This interaction will prepare young people to effectively use the devices as toddlers, in adolescence, and beyond.


18 replies
  1. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Lisa, thanks for another great piece! You always do a great job with your research and making connections.

    I am pro-technology. Without technology I wouldn’t have the friends in my life that I do now, that’s just a fact. A few of them I have made connections through this blog and others through shared mutual interests and similar unschooling lifestyle through facebook.

    For a few years after starting unschooling, I felt completely alone. I didn’t fit in with the “guru” crowd and I didn’t fit in with other homeschoolers. Technology allowed me to find other people just like me. Why would I want to deny that for my children?

    There are so many great apps, books to read, and videos all within the touch of your fingertips. I can’t speak for all families, but my kids have zero addiction issues, in fact they haven’t even turned on their kindles in over a week and I don’t limit screens either.

    Technology is such a huge part of our lives that I’d rather connect with people who share our interests. I expect it’s the same for those on the other side of the coin. There is no judgment here… and I am not dogmatic about it.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I believe there exist kids who can have free access to video games all day long with no ill effects. And I believe that their parents will always take the credit for their kids’ behavior, just like parents take credit for their kids not being picky eaters.

      A friend of mine has five kids. The first four eat everything. She congratulated herself for years on how enlightened, progressive, and righteous she was in their culinary upbringing. Her fifth kid hardly eats anything. He’s a meager little shrimp who throws out ten times as much as he swallows. He lives on white rice. No multi-component dish passes muster.

      I stopped congratulating myself about my son being such an adventurous eater.

      Really, parents have very little to do with whether their kids eat a lot or a little, with the exception of nebulous genetic inheritance or unusually bad behavior on their parts being able to incite a crisis or complex.

      With video games, some kids can take them or leave them. Some kids just can’t leave them – an hour after being thrown off, they’re still stuck in the ‘act first, think later’ mode of video gaming. Bully for you if yours are the former, but it’s not something righteous you did, it’s just their personality. Other kids need help with moderation.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I don’t remember taking credit for anything my kids have done. When my oldest creates a painting, should I take credit for that? When my 5 year old reads college textbooks, do I get credit for that too? Because if any of their accomplishments are because of me, then I think I should go write a book and make some money.

        If my comment came across as something that I did, then I did not write my thoughts properly. My intention was to convey that some kids do not have addiction issues. Does parenting have something to do with that? I have no clue, and that wasn’t even my point.

        So please don’t think that I blame other parents if their children do have some sort of video game addiction. That’s not very fair to me.

      • MBL
        MBL says:

        I’ll well aware that I’m not the nettiquette arbiter here, but, what the?!? Did you get a hold of some bad eggnog or something?

        I see nothing sanctimonious in “I can’t speak for all families, but my kids have zero addiction issues, in fact they haven’t even turned on their kindles in over a week and I don’t limit screens either. ” And even if there were I don’t understand why it would be worthy of a personal attack.

        I sincerely hope everything is okay on your end and with your family.

  2. Lisa @ Four Under Six
    Lisa @ Four Under Six says:

    This reminds me of a piece Penelope did awhile back that really challenged my thinking and I realized she is right. She was discussing how video games aren’t the enemy. It’s that kids have zero balance between the games and any other types of activities (I’m paraphrasing) and parents have guilt about that so they vilify video games. And she’s totally right. Balance in every part of our lives is necessary. Screens aren’t the devil. Especially interactive ones such as iPads and computers. All things in moderation.

  3. Teryn
    Teryn says:

    Screen time can become an addiction just like anything in life. It meets a need and depending on the human using the technology it can be an engaging learning tool or an escape from reality or both. My boys have very different personalities and their screen time reflects that. The oldest is only interested in gaming when he has friends to play with him. He is social and the solitary aspect quickly becomes boring for him. My middle son is an introvert so he is happy to play alone and he is thrilled by the challenge of a new game. At 5 he would play 10 hours a day if I let him. We have limits in our home because I don’t think my children have the maturity to make those decisions yet. I think it’s a very real possibility that my middle son may struggle more with relationships later in life. But if he has a screen time addiction that will be the symptom of the problem rather than the cause. Technology is not good or bad. It’s what we do with it.

  4. CristenH
    CristenH says:

    When these “screen time” conversations get going, what if we replaced that phrase with “page time” or “listening to music time” or “drawing time”. Would we be so ready to jump to addiction? Yes, different kids have different relationships with video games or TV shows, just like they do with pianos or comic books or bugs. Why demonize of a form of learning that compels them so? My 7 year old loves video games. He will play all day long. And because he feels secure that I understand his love and joy of the games, he is willing to drop it to come to the park, or go to the woods or the beach. And when he resists leaving his games, I talk to him about the needs of the family, just as if he was holding on to his piano. I don’t tell him he has a problem. Lisa’s post concludes with the advice of doing the tech activities with your kids. Only after playing with my son, scouring YouTube with him to find ways to beat the next boss, watching him develop perseverance through getting to the next level, have I been able to really see how much cool stuff he is doing. I listen as he and his friends do math together, work on problems together, help each other meet goals. He also loves to swim in the ocean, jump on the trampoline, ride bikes. If I gave him a sense of disapproval, or dismay at his love of the game, that would get in the way of the joy and the learning, and create a battlefield where none need exist.

    • Teryn
      Teryn says:

      It sounds like you have a very healthy relationship with your son and that even though he loves video games he understands responsibilities to his family as well. In answer to your question I think if my children spent all day doing any one activity I would probably struggle with it and perhaps even see it as an addiction depending on their reactions to being separated from it. Although they would become an expert in one thing it would not come without cost. I think any “expert” would tell you their success has come at a price and that usually comes in the form of relationships. The nature of addiction or obsession is that it enslaves you… to the point that it can actually be physically and emotionally painful to deny yourself. I have witnessed this with video games. Personally I have never seen a marriage fail from a piano addiction but I’m sure it’s possible.

  5. CristenH
    CristenH says:

    And, while I’m going :) as for “everything in moderation”, I don’t ascribe to that one at all. Everything? Joy, peace, love? I want as much of those as I can muster, and I want them for my kids as well. I am not an advocate of moderate amounts of injustice, dishonesty, deliberate harm, etc. Letting go of this type of platitude creates some space for new ideas, like, how do you get to 10,000 hours with moderation?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I’m not disagreeing with your sentiments at all, but I just wanted to point out that the whole 10,000 hour thing is a pop psychology myth.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I love your comments.

      In my second pregnancy I drank red wine without worry. I hated that during the first pregnancy I was treated like a child. Like I couldn’t tell right from wrong. Like I couldn’t take good care of myself and my precious baby.

      Why is it bad to drink while pregnant? oh there are warning labels everywhere because once upon a time a lady drank a 5th of vodka a day and her kid suffered development problems and then decided to sue?

      Why can’t I consume seafood? how do women in communities where fishing is the backbone of the economy do it?

      Why is it okay for a kid to love and practice an instrument for more than 2 hours a day but not okay to play video games? because some kids deal with addiction problems?

      by that reasoning we should just not do anything because some people have addiction problems.

      I love the of being cautious about everything in moderation. No one becomes excellent at anything by applying moderation.

  6. MBL
    MBL says:

    For the last month or so, when we don’t have something scheduled, my 9 year old has been doing Scratch for up to 10 hours a day. Every day. When she was reading the Wings of Fire series (recommended by a fellow Scratcher) she would also read a 300 page book a day, but when she doesn’t have a series going, she may fit in some more Scratch time.

    Honestly, I don’t know if I am doing the right thing by letting her, but I do know she has learned a TON and is so proud of the projects that she has done and the feedback she has gotten from peers. She has 100 followers and many of them are now friends. (I’m not sure if I should put quotes around friends or not… so hard to say these days.)

    It is hilarious to see her interactions with the others. Someone posted “Follow for a follow?” and her response was “No thanks.” Another time it was “Why would I do that?” and yet another time it was “Well, I’m already following you but, okay.”

    There has been no back-sliding with IRL skills and there have been improvements that may or may not have happened anyway.

    The thing is, it is her nature to dive head first into something and binge on it. She may stick with it for a while, or it may be a passing fancy, but that is just how she is. Sure I could attempt to fight it/her and make her “well balanced,” but I would lose and I don’t know that anything would be gained in the trying. Basically, transitions are very, very hard for her. She knows this, I know this, everyone within earshot knows this. And life throws enough in there that I don’t need to manufacture some to get her used to it. In the meantime, she’s creating some really cool stuff.

    Regarding parents engaging with their kids with electronics, I think it is situational. With tv/movies, passive things, I think it is great to be able to stop and discuss things. With things like Scratch and Minecraft, I find it best to let her do those completely on her own so she can learn how to learn for herself. If I were with her, she would delegate like nobody’s business. She did request that her father and I create our own accounts so we could interact with her and she could send us stuff. My husband has been employed as a programmer or dba since he was 14…she gives him all kinds of tips and tricks for his Scratch projects. And I try not to snicker.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I love your kid’s reaction to people being vapid online.

      When I was a child I avoided many things by grabbing a book and reading.

      Because it was reading no one thought of peeling me away from the book. But if my brothers were playing with video games they were constantly policed.They figured that no one bothered them if they were playing the piano.

      All these were solitary activities.

      And since we used them as an avoidance tactic we missed out on developing communication skills when things got heated or we felt suffocated. We never learnt to say “I’m not comfortable with xyz please don’t make me do it.”

      And now we have to learn it as adults and it’s so messy.

      It goes to show, your kid is probably so healthy by knowing how to be herself online. It’s her native language afterall. For her a follow for follow is not a carrot on a stick.

  7. Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom
    Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom says:

    What a fabulous post.

    I am always wary of the fine line of technology. I’m constantly wondering how much is too much?

    However, this is the age we live in! I want my children to be able to navigate technology with ease and there are so many benefits of being savvy with it.

    I want my children to learn a second language AND a computer language… because that’s where society is at.

    I like the idea of using technology side-by-side. I homeschool my daughter and I utilize apps, interactive books, websites, and games to help her achieve her educational goals. She’s in grade 2 and this month she will be participating in an online video conference class about Paleontology.

    Technology can be very positive and it’s refreshing to hear this take on it.

    Wishing you a lovely evening (and a happy new year)!

  8. Amy A
    Amy A says:

    Oh god. This topic again.

    No expert, organization, research is going to convince me to ignore my gut, preferences for what goes on around me, what I believe is my parental responsibility, and what I want for my kids.

    I choose to have no tv or internet in my home (used to have both, and internet was used *all* the time). I love it!

    The pic at the top of the post: that wouldn’t fly with me. All those kids getting to hang out together, and getting to eat out together too..but on their phones instead of interacting and appreciating the experience? Nah.

    To each their own. Thankfully.

  9. Lisa Cooley
    Lisa Cooley says:

    Amy, you are imposing your own interpretation of what’s happening around that table, as many in my generation do, in those Facebook pictures of kids under a tree looking at their phones. If those kids didn’t enjoy being in each other’s company, they would be under different trees. And most of those pics are posed, anyway. When I see kids on phones, I also hear talk, laughter, sharing pics, giggling, discussing and telling everyone what an absent friend just texted them.

    I get how you feel, I really do. I am 54, and it has been some hard work to let go of “things were better in my day.” This isn’t your day. Let go of the fear. Let go of the superiority. Let go of the misinterpretations of a simple, happy picture. Last night my daughter and her best friend were staying up waiting for the New Year in my daughter’s room. I poked my nose in, and they were both on Ipads and a laptop was between them. I said, “You don’t have two devices each. Do you need another one? I can give you my phone.” They laughed and I closed the door.

    Happy kids. Smart kids, learning kids. Healthy kids.

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