Welcome to this installment of our limited run advice column! Senior Features Writer Rebecca Ruiz and Director of Special Projects Alex Hazlett will be answering questions about screen time and digital family life during the pandemic. You can read our the rest of our advice here. Submit a question at [email protected]
Do skills like writing, patience, attention, reading comprehension, memory retention, and ability to self regulate really suffer from screen time? And what is too much given that way more RL will be part of school next year? – Elina, mom of a 4th grader
The short answer to the first part of your question is that we really don’t know yet. of screen time is difficult, partly because the research in this area is almost frequently retrospective. In other words, researchers survey parents or children about screen use habits as well as academic outcomes and emotional well-being. Such studies may show a relationship between screen use and mental health, like the between increased screen time and depression, but they’re often not designed to pinpoint whether the screen time itself caused a certain outcome. A whole range of other factors could be at play. Young people who are prone to depression, for example, could spend more time online than their peers who don’t experience mental health issues.
The other reason it’s difficult to answer your question is because researchers haven’t consistently collected the data necessary to determine cause and effect. A 2019 JAMA Pediatrics , for example, found an association between excessive screen time and later developmental milestones in toddler and pre-school age children. Yet because the study launched prior to the widespread use of smartphones, the researchers were unable to suss out the effects of that technology on children. It’s worth noting that, in this case, excessive screen time can mean watching TV for hours a time. At the same time, a child using a Chromebook or iPad, which enables tracing or spelling on the screen, might gain gross motor and memory skills that they wouldn’t otherwise watching an unboxing video on YouTube. The quality of the content matters a lot.
Another way to think about this question is to consider how to incorporate the skills you describe into their screen time. Try setting a timer on screen use and then be prepared to slowly and compassionately walk your child through the disappointment of turning it off. This is no easy feat, but it’s essential if you want to teach patience and emotional regulation. Even if you only do so once or twice a week, watch a television show with them and prompt them to discuss what happened. If they’re on Minecraft, ask to build with them and talk about how to handle setbacks. You may notice a theme here: parental involvement is key to ensuring your child learns vital skills as they spend time with screens. You need not be a hero or a perfect parent, particularly at a time when parents are downright exhausted. You and your child deserve grace, but you also must keep showing up, however and whenever you can.
In terms of how much is too much, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers guidelines for ages 0 to 5, and ages 5 to 18. But also trust your child to let you know, and look for signs that they’re overwhelmed or burned out. That can include crankiness, restlessness, and withdrawal. It may be helpful to remember that screen time itself isn’t the enemy, but how it plays out in each child’s life and in their family can make a big difference. –Rebecca
Is there a time of day that’s best if you’re going to give into screen time? We keep allowing a half hour of Sesame Street right before bed but I’m not sure that’s best. -Amy Shoenthal
There are two main considerations that I would reflect on when deciding where to allow a block of screen time: First, what works for your schedule? Second, are there any drawbacks of that particular time you’d like to avoid?
Sleep experts recommend staying away from screens like TVs, laptops, phones, and tablets for at least 30 minutes before bed because the blue light emitted by these devices can delay production of the sleep hormone melatonin and make it harder for you or your kid to fall asleep. Aside from the physiological effects, an exciting TV show may ramp your kid up right about the time when you want them to calm down. Lastly, it introduces another transition when they have to turn off the show and go to bed, which in my experience can lead to a lot of fights, since you’re ending an activity your kid wants to do and starting one they probably don’t want to do. And when it comes to bedtime, discretion is the better part of valor.
So, if you’ve noticed that watching an episode of Sesame Street isn’t helping your child wind down and go to bed, then it’s probably clear this time isn’t a good window for TV. For a while, TV was a good way to get our older child to fall asleep. Then it became a way to induce a fugue state prior to bedtime, but as soon as it went off all the energy she previously hadn’t had would reassert itself in the vociferous avoidance of bedtime. So we changed it.
But your kid probably loves Sesame Street, so you want to know when you “should” watch it. Here, there’s less of a clear answer in that there isn’t some magical “best” hour of the day for screen time. So I’d lean instead on what works best for the schedule for the rest of the family, with an eye to trying to avoid setting up a transition conflict when they have to stop. Some of our favorite times are in the mid-afternoon (after nap if your child takes one) when everyone doesn’t feel like playing more pretend. Or pre-dinner, when you would like to focus on preparing it with only minor interruptions. Another good option could be mid-morning, when they’ve run out of steam playing with their toys. It may take some experimenting to figure out what works for your family, and it’ll change over time. You won’t avoid fights entirely, but you hopefully won’t be in a battle and then trying to go to bed.
Now for one question you didn’t ask me but I’m going address anyway. You framed your advice as asking for the best time to “give in” to screen time, and I’m going to challenge you to cut yourself some slack there. You’re talking about letting your child watch very high-quality age-appropriate content for a limited time. That’s the gold standard of parental screen time management!
There’s a lot of anxiety around screen time, but don’t underestimate the possibility of good kids’ shows bringing up concepts and ideas that you can build on when they’re not watching. My daughter knows what a birch tree is because she’s cut down so many in Minecraft. Sesame Street in particular has a strong focus on kindness and managing your emotions, which are valuable skills to practice. Connecting the concepts that Elmo is dealing with to something your child is experiencing can reinforce the lesson and help your child learn. You may already do this with books or other media, and the same can be true of the shows your children watch. –Alex