The Case FOR Screen Time

Why TV, video games, & social media are better uses of time than you may think.

Posted Apr 26, 2019

Thijs Knapp, CC 2.0
Source: Thijs Knapp, CC 2.0

Some research finds that screen time correlates with everything from depression to violence.

But, of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation—Logical analysis helps assign causation. I'll assert here that screen time is a significant net plus. (Of course, I'm not advocating relentless watching of bad TV and nonstop shoot-em-up video games. Also, of course, parents should warn their kids about rumor-spreaders, internet predators, etc.)

TV

It’s ironic that many activists for decreased screen time are the same ones who decry low-income children’s so-called “30 million word gap.”  Clearly, compared with training parents to speak more and better to their kids, it’s easier (and free) to use TV to expose such children to millions more words, well-said words crafted by TV's professional writers in consultation with children’s education experts.

Too, TV widens the worlds of most middle-class kids and adults, TV that's explicitly educational and not. TV comedies, dramas, and movies (e.g., on Netflix) explore life’s core issues, often in contexts most people would otherwise never see, from Raj-era India to Nazi Germany to today’s rural South.

Another anti-TV argument is that it’s passive. Puhleeze!  Millions of students pay a fortune to passively listen to long lectures by impenetrable, soporific professors. For free, TV, carefully crafted to be engaging, informative, and encouraging of humanistic values, yields more net benefit per hour than hearing Professor Hasenpfeffer drone on.

And for God’s sake, what’s wrong with some pure entertainment? Admit it, you laugh at silly sitcoms. Okay, at least I do. And unlike so much entertainment (Think $200 sports or concert tickets,) it’s free. Haven’t you seen world-class performers on TV, as though you were having a front-row seat?

Video games

But what about video games? Some activists assert that video games cause everything from ADHD to shooting sprees. It doesn't seem reasonable nor comport with my experience that shooting cartoon characters makes one more likely to commit real violence. The argument that video games inure one to violence is as wrong-headed as arguing that kids knocking down a snowman makes them more likely to knock down people.

Admittedly, this is mere anecdote, but I watched a  lot of violent TV as a kid and played a bit of violent video games (Space Invaders and then Quake) as a young adult and can’t remember even one time in which I started a fight or otherwise was violent. And in response to the argument that video games tip the violence-prone over the edge, I am unaware of quality data that would outweigh the assertion that a person’s shooting cartoon characters causes him (or her) to be more violent any more than does shooting cardboard rodents in a booth at the county fair.

In addition, before we discourage video games, we must weigh the liabilities against the benefits. Let’s exclude those twitchy, shoot-everything-in-sight games. With reasonable curation, the benefits of video games are considerable: In most games, the player spends more time per minute in the vaunted problem-solving than in most courses. And of course, video games' entertainment value is high: interactively solving problems while exploring beautiful, surprise-filled, mysterious settings, often set to fascinating music. All for perhaps a buck an hour, even for best selling games.

Social media

But what about social media? Young people and many older ones spend much of their screen time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. A core critique is that social media makes people feel inferior because everyone’s profile contains only a person's positives. But most people understand that profiles are puffery in the same way as consumers know that commercials are puffed. Yes, there’s unwanted sexting, yes there’s online harassing, so yes, as mentioned, parents and schools should and often do warn kids about that.

But whatever negative effects accrue from seeing people’s best side on social media must be weighed against the myriad positives. For example, with vehicle traffic ever greater, it’s hard to get to see people in person, far easier to connect in social media, where unlike with the telephone, you needn't be there at the moment someone wants to connect with you. And what about long-lost friends and relatives? A one-second search may well unearth them so you can reconnect. And if you have something you’re proud of: an accomplishment or even a picture, what’s wrong with being able to share it with your friends with a click of your mouse? For example, when I’ve written an article or have a speaking engagement coming up, I easily share it with my friends and colleagues on social media. What’s wrong with that?

The internet

Of course, it's easiest to make the argument for this form of screen time. The world of information and entertainment—from YouTube videos to Psychology Today articles—are just a Google-search away.

The takeaway

I’ve tried to make the case for screen time without even arguing that TV and video games should be carefully curated. Of course, TV and video games range widely in quality. Fortunately, the internet (another form of screen time) makes it easy to find shows, movies, and games of high entertainment and educational value. For example, Metacritic.com provides a wealth of reviews of TV shows, video games, and movies, including individual professional and user reviews and aggregated ratings.

Activists and researchers have various motives for being critical of screen time. For example, some view it as a way to stick it to Corporate America, to denigrate the rich TV networks, video game and social media companies such as the current whipping boy, super-successful Facebook.  I invite you to weigh their arguments against those forwarded here.

I speak on this topic on YouTube.