The Top Misconceptions about Screen Time and Why Parents Need to Let Go of the Guilt
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Lately, it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s another article about kids and screens — or rather, what you should be doing instead of letting your kids use them. I spoke with a few experts whose views upend the common wisdom around screen time, as well as parents whose lived experiences offer models for others struggling with what to do about devices post-COVID.
Before the pandemic, Melissa Moses always felt guilty about screen time. “I am that mom who never gave my kids her phone at restaurants — or anytime,” says the Alameda, CA, mother of two. But after a year and a half of watching her 7- and 10-year-old learn math from the game Prodigy, hang with friends on Facebook Messenger, and bond over a Nintendo Switch, Moses has a new perspective. “The pandemic didn’t change my mind about the amount of time on the screens being beneficial, but it opened my eyes to a variety of media and how each of my children interacts with it differently,” she says.
If you’re among the many parents — who, like Moses — have been pleasantly surprised at the positive things that can happen when your kids are happily engaged with digital media, there’s good news on the horizon. But first, you need to let go of the guilt.
Making Peace with Screens
Parents of young kids have seen how devices can sub in reasonably well for everything from ballet class to birthday parties. And rather than getting addicted, as so many feared, kids are suffering Zoom fatigue and begging to go back to school. In a way, the pandemic has shown us how reliant we are on the physical world. So why do so many parents still feel guilty about screen time?
One reason might be the legacy of the original 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) device guidelines, which prescribed screen time amounts appropriate to every age. The updated 2016 device guidelines still advise parents to limit screen use to one hour per day for kids ages 2–5. And though it makes sense to restrict screens for babies and young toddlers, the research on the effects of screen media isn’t so cut-and-dry for older kids, especially when it comes to interactive media such as learning apps and social games.
In fact, screen scholars take exception to the very idea of screen time. Jordan Shapiro, professor at Temple University and author of Father Figure: How to be a Feminist Dad says the length of device sessions has always been a red herring. “The real question isn’t about the duration of screen time, but rather what’s happening on the screen,” he says.
Instead of timing kids, parents should be more invested in what kids are learning, how they’re interacting, and what they’re getting out of their online experiences. Michael Levine, senior vice-president at Nickelodeon and co-author (with Lisa Guernsey) of Tap, Click, Read, advises parents to make intentional, age-appropriate content choices that spark kids’ interests and curiosity. “There is a huge difference between parking a child in front of a mindless video game with violent content versus using an educational app like Noggin or PBS Kids.”
To be sure, what Levine, Shapiro, and other experts advise parents — to spend time evaluating games and apps for their enrichment potential — is more involved. But it’s necessary and worthwhile — and has a miraculous effect on guilt. Shapiro suggests parents do a gut check to determine whether something is OK for your kid. “Are the digital activities your kids are engaged in aligned with your family values? If the answer is yes, there’s no reason to feel guilty,” he says.
Tools You Can Use to Evaluate Games and Apps
But if you’ve spent the pandemic in total digital immersion, you’re already on your way to accepting that screen media has its benefits, which helps you parent from a position of strength rather than regret.
For parents who want to preserve the positive aspects of their kids’ pandemic device experiences post-COVID, you can do as Moses does and keep close tabs on what your kids are doing on their devices. “The way that I feel less guilty about their media use is if I’m informed,” says Moses. She uses sites like Common Sense Media to read product reviews and make mindful choices. “If I have researched the games, books, shows, and movies, I feel that I have a say in their media use.”
You can also just observe what your kids are drawn to — and double-down on that. Betsy Bozdech, executive editor of reviews and ratings at Common Sense Media, whose kids are 7 and 11, used this strategy to focus her kids on activities that fulfill specific needs. “The main lesson I’ve learned is that so much of what my kids do online/on a device has to do with connection and curiosity — they reach out to and talk to friends on different platforms and even talk to each other on Minecraft.” says Bozdech.
This helped her steer her daughter toward an easy-to-manage chatting app that satisfied the fifth-grader’s desire to socialize. “She badgered me for Roblox for ages, but it turns out that what she really wanted was to be able to chat with her friends online — once she got Facebook Messenger Kids, she didn’t really care about Roblox anymore,” she says.
There are also a few pro tools you can take advantage of to inform your rules going forward. Authors Michael Levine and Lisa Guernsey offer a quiz called the “3 C’s” to help parents determine whether a game, app, or other piece of media has value for a child’s particular needs and interests. The AAP provides a Personalized Family Media Use Plan to prompt deeper thinking and more intentional usage of apps, games, and shows. And Common Sense Media offers this customizable family media agreement.
No one suggests that devices should raise our kids — finding a balance of activities is crucial to optimal child development. But you can ease up on the stopwatch. In the words of Betsy Bozdech, who — like many parents — has been juggling work-from-home, remote learning, and life under lockdown. “Experts I trust have said over and over again that quality, not quantity, is the most important metric when it comes to kids and screen time. You are not a bad parent because your kid uses an iPad a couple of hours a day.”