Screen Time: Good or Bad?

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Screen time for kids is a controversial topic. Many parents today wrestle with questions like:

  • “How much screen time should my 10-year-old have? What about my 2-year-old?”
  • “Is screen time making my kid antisocial?”
  • “Is my kid addicted to video games?”
  • “Are screens divorcing my kids from nature and the real world?”

Unfortunately the media often add sensationalist fuel to the fire, which makes it even harder for parents to reach informed decisions. For example, this fear-inducing article was widely shared on social media recently, despite being based on very shaky scientific ground.

Now I can’t claim to be an entirely neutral observer here — after all, I am running a blog about kids using screens, for the most part. However, it seems to me that a lot of these worries about screens and kids are grounded in a fear of new technology. Technophobia is, of course, nothing new, and totally natural — especially, it should be noted, as one reaches the age where one tends to have young kids running around. In The Salmon of Doubt, science fiction author Douglas Adams wisely wrote:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

When telephones first came out, some people thought they could make you deaf or crazy. Even Socrates got on the technophobic bandwagon, warning about the evils of letting children read:

…for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

And of course mobile phones on public transport are terribly antisocial — they’re breaking down the fabric of society. Sorry, did I say phones? I meant newspapers.

For me, parenting expert, author and psychotherapist Alyson Schafer hits the nail on the head when she talks about digital media and kids:

All these kids, they’re born into this technology; it will forever be a part of their life. They’re not going to see it as an “add-on”… it’s just going to be all around them.

In the full interview, Alyson discusses kids, iPads, games, parenting styles, and finding a balance between digital devices and the natural world:

Behind the Scene with Alyson Schafer at TEDxKids@Brussels 2011 from Learning Agency Network on Vimeo.

Many people are now realising that it’s not so much the amount of screen time that’s significant, or the type of device, but what’s actually on the screen, and how their kids are interacting with it. Even the co-author of the much-quoted AAP guidelines on screen time is now rethinking his screen time advice for under-twos in the light of the benefits of new innovations such as the iPad and educational apps.

Of course, very young kids — particularly those under the age of two — need lots of hands-on interaction with the physical world and real one-on-one social interaction for their brains to develop normally. However, this doesn’t mean that a fun iPad game or educational app can’t have a place in their lives at all.

Learning experts and technology writers such as Marc Prensky and Steven Johnson have long argued that a great deal of modern media — including video games and, yes, even TV — can have beneficial effects for children.

Now there may well be risks associated with some types of screen use, even though there is little conclusive evidence at this point. For example, there is a lot of debate over whether video games can cause addiction. The trouble is that we can never say for certain that any technology is 100% safe:

…even when a technology is perfectly safe, the nature of scientific proof makes it impossible to verify. It is only possible to look for evidence of harm, and if none is found, there either is no harm, or it is necessary to look for it in a different way.

So faced with all this mishmash of evidence, speculation and opinion, what’s a parent to do? The answer, of course, is to look at both sides of the argument objectively and try to reach an informed decision that works for you. As a parent with two young kids, I have spent a while developing a policy for my own family, and perhaps my guidelines might be useful to you too.

Therefore, I humbly present…

The Brightpips guide to sensible screen time

  • Look at what your kid is watching or playing. Are they interacting with a game or app, or simply staring passively at a cartoon? Are they likely to be learning new information and skills, or are they watching a repeat of the same cartoon that they’ve already watched six times? Use a food groups analogy: more “veggies” (interactive screen time, thinking games, Sesame Street); less “empty calories” (shallow casual gaming; passive TV watching; endless YouTube “Let’s Play” videos).
  • Trust your instincts. Rather than always setting a timer for a fixed amount of time, let your gut feeling tell you when your kid has spent too much time watching TV or playing with a game or app. If they’re zoning out or getting irritable then they’ve probably overdone it and need a break.
  • Get involved. Tempting as it is to use screens as babysitters, try to get involved in your kids’ screen activities for at least some of the time. Watch their favourite TV show with them, and ask them why they like it so much. Try to understand the rules of their favourite video games, and try playing them yourself. (Even better — play the game with your kid, if the game has a multiplayer option.)
  • No screen time before bed. While many negative aspects of screen time are still largely debated, there is hard evidence to show that the light from screens can interfere with sleep quality. Restrict screen time to the daytime.
  • Find a balance. As with any indoor activity — whether it’s screen time, reading, or chess — if your kid does too much of it, they’ll have no time left for other important activities, such as homework, socialising with friends (although many video games are social) and playing and exploring in the great outdoors. This doesn’t mean that screens cannot coexist with these other activities, however. Just make sure that your kid is getting the balance of activities that you feel they need. Again, trust your gut. Also, if important stuff needs doing in the house — tidying up, homework, helping with the dinner — make sure this is done before screen time is allowed.

As parents in a rapidly changing world, we have to keep on top of issues such as how our kids use digital media. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially if we are not digital natives ourselves. Hopefully this article has helped you decide what is right for your family.

What are your thoughts on screen time? Please let me know in the comments below!

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6 comments on “Screen Time: Good or Bad?
  1. ClaireA says:

    Matt, I could not agree with many of the points you highlighted. Especially about parents joining in. I sometimes play with the children, but they also like joining in when I or Jon play our favourite word game on the tablet. Also interesting reading about before bedtime. I thought the problem was the children getting too hyper, but did not realise the problem is down to the screen light (hope I understood this bit right).

    • Matt Doyle says:

      @ClaireA: Thanks for your comment (I’m guessing you mean “I could not agree more”!). Regarding sleep, I suspect it may be a bit of both those causes. The bright lights in screens certainly suppress melatonin release, which makes it harder to sleep; but I also personally find that if I do a lot of thinking (e.g. work, or a strategy video game) right before bedtime then I don’t sleep so well either. It might partly depend on the type of game being played as well.

  2. Freya Dawson says:

    Dear Matt,
    I love the article. Very thoughtful. I particularly like the quote from Douglas Adams. In relation to your “policy” I like the “Get involved” bit the best. I have two sons who are avid gamers. It is really their passion. It has been a steep learning curve for me – as I was definitely introduced to gaming after 35! What has made the most difference in calming my fears has been to get involved. I have sat an watched countless hours of many, many games and tried my hand at quite a few (with little success). What I have learned is that the games that really capture my kids attention are amazing, complex, creative learning experiences for them. Minecraft would be the pinnacle in terms of creativity, but many others come close. Games have opened up countless new avenues for exploration in the real and virtual worlds.
    I have not found setting limits on my children’s screen time to be necessary or helpful. They play a lot and are good at self-regulating their own screen time. They have reached this point through their own experiences, decision-making and learning. I have recently also started a blog, and my first post is on this issue of setting limits. You might like to check it out at
    Looking forward to reading more of your writing!

    • Matt Doyle says:

      Freya, thanks for your comment. I totally agree that getting involved with your kids’ gaming (and of course any of their other activities) is a great way to understand their world and connect with them.

      Out of interest, you mentioned other games apart from Minecraft. I’d love to have a list of your favourites, since I’m planning to cover all sorts of games in future blog posts. For example, I’m currently looking at the kinds of things children can learn while playing The Sims.

      I enjoyed reading your blog post about setting limits. I’ve added your blog to my Feedly and look forward to hearing more from you!

      • Freya says:

        Hi again,
        One of my kids has developed an interest in ancient history and the history of Empires out of playing games like Civilisation V, Spore and Stardrive. He is also rather captivated by the design and experimentation possibilities in Kerbal Space Program and Gary’s Mod. Skyrim is great for sparking interest in Nordic mythology and history. Red Dead Redemption sparked an interest in Spanish, the wild west, breeds of horses, wildlife of America, Mexico,….Both boys love Terraria – another game with great scope for creativity, design and co-operative play. World of Warcraft was good for co-operative play and social skills. A general interest in space, exploration, evolution, design, how societies work and literacy skills sprang from playing Spore.
        Other notables; Anno 2070, Mass Effect, the various Lego games, Ratchet and Clank, Stardrive, Don’t Starve all for different reasons.
        A friend of theirs plays Sims and loves the design elements. She is very interested in architecture and interior design.

  3. Matt Doyle says:

    Thanks Freya. Some of the those were on my list, but you’ve given me a lot more to check out too. Great stuff!