One parent's honest take on screen time for kids (with help from research)

For Parents Dec 17, 2019

In this op-ed, Outschool teacher and parent Gerard Dawson reflects on the sensational media coverage and real research on the effects of screen time for kids.

It was like shielding my kids from a weapon.

That’s how fast I’d put my phone away, or slam the laptop closed, when my older son, now four, would see me working or browsing something during the first few years of his life.

All of the rhetoric, headlines, and social media comments about the danger of screen time for young children had infiltrated my brain.

Now, out of both curiosity and concern, I'm looking deeply into this issue. More and more, the results are surprising me. The answers to the question we should limit screen time, right!? are less clear than I originally thought.

For very young brains, my gut reaction has always been something along these lines: the negative impact of too much screen time for little ones probably has more to do with the way too much screen time means too little face-to-face time. Interestingly, others have made this connection as well. Screen time itself is not necessarily the mental poison it's sometimes made out to be.

As someone who teaches teenagers, the connection between social media and mental health is another area of concern. However, here the research also appears hazy. It's not too difficult to see a potential connection between too much scrolling on Instagram and an increase in mental health issues. However, the link is becoming less clear based on new studies and findings about the relationship between the two. Taken by itself, once again the sheer time spent on screens does not seem to be the negative force on teens.

One thing, though, does seem more clear now: the way kids use technology probably matters more than how much they use it.

Additionally, even for kids who do use screens excessively, it seems that the amount of screen time kids experience, as an isolated variable, is not on its own harmful. Instead, it's the limitation of other behaviors required for good health, like sunshine, exercise, and forming healthy face-to-face relationships.

This is not to say that there are no negative effects or experiences resulting from online activity by kids. Online bullying, for one, is harmful and all too common. What's more, social apps make it easy for teens to spend time comparing themselves to celebrities or peers. That's not a behavior that is unique to screens, but it is likely exacerbated by them. And that's not a good habit for young minds with fragile egos and self-esteem.

All of the data is nearly impossible to comb through. However, there's one particular resource, bringing more of a philosophical perspective than a quantitative one, that's most helped me clarify my perspective on screen time for kids

Screen time or restrictions: which is worse?

When thinking about what it would mean to limit my kids' access to screens, one question kept popping into my mind:

What is the harm in being too restrictive on the way my kids spend their time, even if it involves using screens?

For this question, I turned to the perspective of psychologist Peter Gray, PhD and author of Freedom to Learn.

When considering limits on screen time for kids, which he says many parents ask about, Gray says, “I have a very high opinion of children's abilities to make good choices about how to use their free time, as long as they really have choices.”

As I see it, this isn't an invitation for parents to let their iPad be the babysitter, nor is it a call to throw kids out the front door and force them to stay outside until dark. It's about giving kids options for how to play and learn, and offering the freedom for kids to choose amongst those options.

In other words, create a good environment, and then trust them.

As for the obsessive nature of some kids’ screen time, often connected with video games, Gray makes an interesting point about the value that children derive from activities they choose to pursue. The key, Gray suggests, is that kids must actually have the opportunity to try many different things.

“In my experience, if kids are really free to play and explore in lots of different ways, and they end up playing or exploring in what seems to be just one way, then they are doing that because they are getting something really meaningful out of it.”

When reading this, I think back to my own behaviors as a kid that could have easily been labeled as “excessive” or “obsessive,” but were viewed as more healthy because they did not take place in front of a screen. I spent hours doing tasks that now clearly have no practical value, doing things like practicing magic tricks, juggling, and practicing “devil sticks.” Unfortunately, the circus never called.  Fortunately, I eventually moved on to other pursuits.

For Gray, the issue of too much screen time is somewhat of a red herring. His point, which most resonated with me, is that too much control by parents is the real problem.

On this topic, Gray says, “Children are suffering today not from too much computer play or too much screen time. They are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom.”

When it comes down to it, all parents want more for their kids. More fun, more opportunity, and more learning. But maybe the path to get there actually involves less: less scheduling, less structure, and less supervision. And if that occasionally means more screen time, then that's OK, too.

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Searching for healthy screen time options for your kid? Visit Outschool.com to explore live online classes for kids! Taught over video chat, your kid can connect with learners and teachers over their favorite topics.

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson teaches English full-time at a public high school in New Jersey. He also writes about teaching, learning and technology for education startups.

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