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Screen Time and Kids: Three Questions We Should Also be Asking

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

I wrote this column for our local newspaper, The Democrat Tribune. They do not have an online version of their paper, so I am posting it here. Thanks for reading! -Matt

During these recent no school days due to inclement weather, it was hard to keep our own kids occupied, especially when it was bitterly cold. Our son even commented, “Are we getting too much screen time?” We assured him that once the weather warmed up, they would be able to get back outside and play.

The advent of the Internet along with screens becoming mobile – tablets, smartphones, laptops – has brought both advantages and challenges to our lives. On the plus side, we can communicate with anyone in the world at any time through video and text in addition to a phone call. Being able to see and talk with a family member or friend many miles away through Facetime or Skype has brought our world closer together.

However, these benefits are soon taken for granted, and then we start thinking about all of the disadvantages of a constant connection. For example, if our smartphones are always on, when can we truly take a break? In the case of our children, all of the digital media options they now have in the form of online gaming, social media, and streaming shows can occupy a young person’s life like never before.

In the midst of this challenge, one question that comes up frequently is: how much screen time is too much for kids? The American Academy of Pediatrics used to recommend no more than two hours a day. Recently they have replaced this rule with more differentiated guidelines for families (which you can find here: www.aap.org). For example, young children should have less screen time than older kids and the content they watch should be high quality and educational.

I also believe It is not just about how much time. What kids are doing with screens? How are they engaged with what’s online? Why do they choose to watch and interact with a game, app or program? Next are my reflections on each question.

  • What are kids experiencing on a screen? Kids’ minds are at different developmental stages based on age and readiness. If you have concerns about what they are seeing, they are likely valid. Follow the ratings and remind yourself that you are the parent; you get to make final decisions as long as they live under your roof. If there isn’t a rating, engage in the content with them and make a decision, together if possible.
  • How are kids engaged on a screen? There’s a difference between watching a continuous stream of unfiltered YouTube videos and learning how to speak another language with Duolingo. We as parents can help our kids self-monitor what they consume by discussing these differences and building an understanding of the limitations and possibilities of time spent on a screen.
  • Why are kids choosing to be on a screen? In my own personal experience, too often I will reach for my smartphone out of habit or because I am bored. My guess is you have had this awareness too. Talking about this with our kids can set up a productive conversation about our habits and what we are choosing to give up when we go online. It’s not about a choice being bad or good but about understanding that we have choices.

A more nuanced approach to raising our kids in a world of screens is more complex than a hard-and-fast rule like “No more than two hours a day.” Yet there is also opportunity in engaging with our kids in conversation about this new connected world. We can learn together what it means to live a better life both online and offline.

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