Screen Time: Think What, When & Why, Not How Much

Isn’t it odd that a child can read a magazine, color in an activity book, write a letter to Grandma, devour a chapter book, laugh at a comic strip, snuggle through a favorite picture book for the umpteenth time, or do homework … and we never say she’s getting too much “page time.”

Today, electronic devices deliver equally diverse and enriching experiences, but when it comes to “screen time,” some experts still recommend doling it out by volume, not content.

  • Communication apps enable children to see and talk with distant friends or relatives, even sharing a book or animating a story together, across the miles;
  • Smartphone cameras help kids capture and relive family outings (and give parents insight into what engaged their child);
  • eBooks can replicate print versions; deepen insight into non-fiction topics through print, images and films; or invite play within a fantasy world;
  • Creativity programs provide a bottomless box of blocks, or an art set that never breaks or dries out (or draws on walls); and
  • Children learn about the world through narrative, and TV and movies offer stories – real and fictional – that engage, inform, educate and inspire, for kids alone or for family co-viewing.

Given this range and depth, I believe screen time is an outdated term, and that parents can — almost always — shelve the timer and look instead at what’s being consumed (or created!).

Context (when, where and why a device is being used) is as important as content. The tablet that is soothing at a doctor’s office may be disruptive in a restaurant. On a third consecutive snow day, parents may be grateful for TV shows they’d deny on a sunny day. The world’s biggest research libraries — Google and YouTube — are invaluable when kids discover a frog in the yard.

Still, children must live in balance, and time limits may make sense if electronics overwhelm a child’s other choices. Kids need active gameplay and exercise, social time with friends or siblings, fantasy play, and exploration in the real world.

Digital and physical experiences should supplement, not replace, each other. Kids need first-hand sensory experiences — drawing with real crayons, throwing an actual ball, turning the pages of a paper magazine, cooking with foods they can then eat.

Most important, every family is different, and parents are best equipped to keep their children’s lives in balance and moderation. Whatever screen time they choose to allow should be wisely invested, using their family values and knowledge of their own children’s needs, interests and abilities to define quality in content and context.

David W. Kleeman

David W. Kleeman is PlayCollective’s SVP of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist; previously, he headed the American Center for Children and Media. Strategist, analyst, author and speaker, Kleeman works worldwide to promote best practices in children’s and family media, technology and products.