I’ve read a number of articles lately that discuss the negative impacts of screens on kids. Far too often the words “screen time” and “social media” are being used interchangeably when they are not the same thing. If we are going to make smart decisions about helping kids navigate the digital world they now live in, we are going to have to have a more nuanced conversation.
To that end, I’ve broken down “screen time” into 4 categories: Create, Connect, Play & Learn, and Enjoy.
Instead of focusing on limiting screen time, our goal as parents should be encouraging kids to find a balance across all these different kinds of activities, and to recognize (and teach our kids about) the benefits and the risks in each of them. For the first 3 categories, there is a lot that can benefit kids.
Using screens to create digital media (images, photos, music, websites, apps) is more and more relevant as time goes on. Our kids are already often asked to create power point presentations, movies, or other digital media as a part of their schoolwork, and many companies expect their employees to have these skills as well.
The ability to connect with others online (via texts, voice chats, video chats, email, online games, etc) has huge advantages, and kids who learn how to interact well with others via technology will be preparing for a work world that increasingly needs its employees to be digitally capable and to work across cities and even states and countries.
I knew one family that proudly avoided getting their son a phone until he was in high school, but I saw the other side of this decision. All the other kids in his social circle had phones, and they used group texts to make plans, usually to go play pick up soccer or meet at the beach or get ice cream somewhere. My son complained that every time the plans changed (which was constantly), someone had to call this boy’s mom or his home phone to tell him, and it got to be so cumbersome that they sometimes just didn’t include him. I think this family had great intentions to protect their son from social media, or from getting sucked into staring at his phone all day long, but at the cost of him losing out on good, healthy, in-person interactions. A more nuanced approach which allowed the phone but limited social media use may have served them better.
I also knew a family that allowed their kids to play video games, but only independently, never online because they were worried about the bad actors, bad language, and internet trolls their kids would meet online. As a result, this kid missed out on years of social interactions online where his friends worked together to build huge Minecraft worlds, or met up at night to joke and laugh and form teams to play whatever the latest game was they were enjoying. I saw my kids negotiate disagreements, make compromises, navigate social interactions, and work on many social skills all via their online gaming sessions. They grew up in a digital world, and these skills seem to be simply necessary now.
Play & Learn
The value of having so much information available to us online to learn from (via educational websites, apps, learning games, eBooks, online classes, and more) can’t be over-estimated, and kids who learn how to harness all of that information and all those online tools will be well served. Yes, there’s a lot of junk out there too – but all of us, and especially our kids, need to learn to navigate this, and separate the junk from the good content. As parents, this is just a new skill we need to help them learn as they grow.
Even the Enjoy category can be neutral if not even beneficial in some circumstances. TV shows, video games and mobile games, even TikTok can be educational. Steering your kids through these activities can help them to learn the difference.
This category also contains the biggest problem areas. When we talk about screen time being harmful to kids, I believe we mostly worry about 3 specific areas:
- Social media
- Video games and mobile games
Often when people talk about screen time being bad for kids, what they really mean is social media, not screen time. Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok seem to be especially worrisome right now, though these platforms are changing so quickly different apps may be the problem areas 6 months from now. Studies have shown that social media is correlated to depression, anxiety, body issues, bullying, unsafe behavior (drug use and weird fads), and addiction.
At the same time, there are benefits that come along even with social media use too. My kids and my husband all love TikTok, and have learned a surprising amount using it. I use Facebook, and while I dislike many aspects of it, I also see some great benefits. In particular, I have joined some groups that have been super helpful and informative, and I love the ability to connect so easily with others that have shared interests.
The conversations about how to handle kids and social media are still very new and there are not good answers (yet). It’s possible that the companies that build these social media sites will begin to set limits and improve the experience, or maybe government regulations will step in and do this. For now, though it’s up to parents to either limit their kids’ interaction with these sites, or pay very close attention in an effort to monitor what their kids are doing and talk with them about the pluses and minuses of these platforms so help them learn how to use them safely.
Some parents I know joined their kids where they were on social media. This wasn’t a 100% solution. Kids can make other accounts their parents don’t know about. But if you’re friends with your kids’ friends, you can still get some insight into what they’re doing.
If you don’t join your kids on social media, talking with them often about what they’re sharing, what their friends are sharing, what kinds of problems they’re seeing, etc., is your best bet.
Video & Mobile Games
Another area of concern for parents is video and mobile games, though even this category is too broad. Just like not all screens are the same, not all video games are the same. There are video games with learning components, creativity building skills, and positive social interactions. At they same time, there are also video games with a lot of shooting and killing (which bothers some more than others), and there are video games and mobile games which seem to be more addictive than others, causing concerns about kids who spend way too much time playing them, sometimes to the exclusion of doing any other activities. My family struggled a lot with the finding ways to set limits on what games our kids played and on all the video game time they wanted. We aimed for encouraging them to spend some of their “screen time” on a wider variety of activities as shown in the chart above. For example, we encouraged Pokemon Go and Beat Saber which allowed them to play video games but also get some exercise at the same time. We also talked with them often about what they were playing, who they were playing with, and most importantly, we kept the gaming devices within earshot!
In addition to containing content and interactions that are concerning for kids, social media, video games, and mobile games also all have the property of promoting endless scrolling and play time. Whether your kids (or you!) find yourself mindlessly scrolling social media even when you don’t mean to be, or playing Candy Crush or Disney Emoji Blitz or whatever your poison is, kids and adults alike are struggling with the addictive nature of these apps on a phone that is always within reach.
Addiction issues are just flat out hard to address – for adults and kids alike. I’m far from having answers to how to solve this problem, and I suspect this is the crux of all of the concerns about “screen time” that has everyone worried. As always, my approach is to have conversations often about these issues with my kids. I think as a society we are all just starting to see this problem and understand it, so our best bet is talk about it and work together to try to find some approaches that help.
Our Job As Parents
As parents, our generation is the first one that’s having to navigate raising kids with screens available everywhere we go. There are pluses and minuses to this, and to get through it we are going to need to work on being more precise about what the real concerns are, and be careful not to blame “screen time” if what we’re really concerned about is social media use, some video/mobile games, and the difficulties with getting sucked in and finding it hard to stop.
Teaching our kids about how to get the benefits of technology while avoiding the pitfalls is just as necessary as teaching them to read, or tie their shoes, or scramble an egg. Disallowing the technology doesn’t help kids learn to handle it, so we’re going to have to dig in and find a way to harness it!