Parenting advice on screen time

ScreenTime-612x300I just finished a review paper on the potential benefits of playing video games. Having spent approximately 6 months reading, LITERALLY, every single scientific study on the matter, my colleagues and I had a great deal to say about the research on the subject and we’ve now submitted the paper to share with other academics and clinicians. But after speaking with my family recently, I realized I had gleaned a few of my own personal takes on gaming, screen time, and how I would (and do) raise my own children on various media. (They are 7 years old, which is relevant). Here are just a few of my parenting-relevant opinions, some based more on scientific evidence than others:

1. There are NO well-designed, well-executed empirical studies on how much is too much screen time in terms of video games. So parents are out of luck gleaning any “hard” advice in that domain from the research literature. There’s plenty of media hype, but none is based on good data. TV is the only exception and indeed less is best.

2. Talking about whether “screen time” is good or bad for you is like talking about whether food is bad or good for you (Bevalier et al., 2012). IT TOTALLY DEPENDS ON WHAT KIND. If my kids were given the choice to play the board game Monopoly or ipad game Rocket Math for 30 min, I would fully advocate Rocket Math SOMETIMES. But it all depends. If my kid was not into reading and was not learning because s/he was not interested in books, and I had a game that required the child to read the dialogue to excel in the game, I would buy as many of those apps as possible to get him interested in reading. My kids are reading interactive books on my ipad. It doesn’t count as strictly as watching tv in terms of screen time. It also depends on who they are sharing the screen time with, how it is mediated by parents, and so on. When their homework will be done on computers that will also not count as screen time.

3. People usually talk about how long children should be allowed to spend in front of screens. I do the math the other way around. I first insist on 2 hours per day of outside play/activity. Once that has been achieved, if there are any extra hours in the day, I can think about what they will do with that time. Between Monday – Thursday, that means NO SCREEN TIME whatsoever. But that is largely a function of how our family life is organized. I come home from work when the kids do at 6 pm (after they have played soccer, or other outdoor activities at their sports daycare), we eat, play, read, etc. and they go to bed 2 hours later. I prefer not to share any of that precious time with a screen. But other families have completely different timetables, family constellations (e.g., siblings, partners) and responsibilities they need to consider. On weekends, my children get 2 hours of screen time per day (they have altogether given up on t.v. shows. They haven’t watched in months. They prefer the video games and “Friday Family Movie Night”). I expect that these rules will change as their  homework becomes screen-based and some of the skills I want to teach them become screen-based (e.g., programming language).

4. My completely unscientifically tested theory is that kids do well with a balanced diet of outdoor play, in-person social play, all sorts of non-screen stuff (music, art, dance, etc) and a DIVERSE menu of on-screen activities. That means they do not ONLY play one type of action game, or watch one type of show, and so on. If they are reading, learning math, learning to program, learning about music, creating their own stories on the screen, and so on, GREAT. I love it (which doesn’t mean they’ll be doing it 8 hours per day obviously). Moderation is key. So is mediation: that is, TALKING to the kids about what they are doing, learning, experiencing, making, working through, etc.

That’s my personal, parental take on the research. I don’t bother reading the media on the subject anymore. It is simply, usually, wrong — almost entirely related to spurious, badly conducted studies or surveys that have nothing to do with real science (unless you count the science of economics… that is, selling magazines).

Isabela Granic

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