Screen Time Is the Symptom, Not the Disease

How our culture is problematic.

Posted Nov 21, 2019

Pay close attention to the scientific research on the effects of screen time on children and teenagers and you realize each headline is the diametrical opposite of the last. My prediction is that the next 20 years will feature dueling scientific researchers on whether social media leads to psychological problems in youth. With many people sitting on the sidelines screaming, "It depends on how you use it!"

Screen time is bad?
Source: Twitter
Screen time is not bad.
Source: Twitter

I have a hypothesis. Screen time is a symptom, not the disease. Kids are over-scheduled by parents who fill up their time with so many well-curated, adult-directed activities (sports leagues, music lessons, tutoring, etc) that there are too few friends who can just come over and hang. That’s where the loneliness and disconnection kick in. And if there are friends floating around, parents only want socializing to be with classmates they know–controlling admission criteria to their kid's social world. That’s where social segregation gets amplified.

Talking about this with friends and colleagues, we decided to dig deeper into why parents over-schedule their kids. We came up with a scientifically proven classification system for parents. See which category your neighbors and friends fall into (obviously you and I aren't the problem):

Screen time is really bad?
Source: Twitter
Screen time is an overblown problem.
Source: Twitter

1. The Benevolent Intention Parent—I would do anything for my kids. I want them to have everything that's pleasant in life. These are the parents who are willing to drive 30 miles after dinner to give their leftovers to the homeless and teach their kids about being part of a community. No complaints except we all look inferior to their virtues.

2. The Overlord—I know what is best for my kid. I am a big person. I will be in control. Do not sit next to them at a soccer game. A bit too much wind and the spittle from their screaming mouth might end up in yours. 

3. The Contrarian—Everyone else thinks it’s bad so I’m doing it unabashedly. Entertaining characters for the sole reason of observing how people react to them.

4. The Follower—Everyone else is doing it, we should do it. They don’t think too much for themselves. They look to the herd. Very useful if you need a self-esteem boost. However, you will get sick of having them repeat your witticisms, especially when you are standing right next to them. 

5. The Sucky Childhood Memory Ruminator—My time as a kid sucked so I must obsess over how to make theirs better. The worst thing that could happen is these parents get a kid of the same sex who looks and acts a bit like them. They create mini-mes and it is often terrifying. 

6. The High School Peaker—It was the best time of my life and I want my kid to bask in the glory that approximates mine. They might be talking about Commodore 64s and ColecoVision since they are walking around like an '80s teenager trapped in an adult body. 

7. The Unhappy Neurotic—I’m so unhappy if I take the focus off of me and obsess over my kid maybe this avoidance will make me feel better. Their self-esteem is dependent on whether their kid outperforms your kids. When their kid fails to live up to their insane in the membrane expectations, you will see them yell, sulk, and make you feel as if you are the best parent in the neighborhood. If you possess high levels of empathy, stay away. Try to be brave and tell them concretely that their kid did great, go easy on them, eat a cracker, and chill out. 

8. The Modern Puritan—"Idle hands are the Devil's workshop." I must keep the lads and laddies busy or they will be up to no good. On the surface, they look like the Benevolent Intention Parent. Behind closed doors, kids are flogged with endless lessons on the nature of evil. Best to spend time with them during daylight hours when a safe person is nearby. Keep a finger ready to dial child services.

9. The Anxious Social Climber—If my kids aren't in structured activities, they can't get into a good college and their lives will be meaningless. I need more bumper stickers on what you achieved! These parents treat social interactions as a game of "show and tell" for how their children are better than yours and everyone else. Look for early signs—designing professional signs for their run for class president, asking permission for their kid to sing on stage at local festivals, and in general, advertising how their kid can be a valuable intern that will improve your company (that's right, you are not doing them a favor, they are doing you a favor by lending their kid's brilliance). Best to drink a few glasses of bourbon before seeing these characters at a school function. 

10. The Pawner—I tell everyone I love being a parent but honestly, I just want to Escape. Look for someone who has multiple au pairs, nannies, babysitters, and random strangers paid to show up to school functions in lieu of them. Giving their kids a smartphone or screen is just one more strategy to get them the hell away. Don't judge, until you are safely in the backyard hiding behind a rack of BBQ ribs. 

Now there are plenty of $20 parenting books and 20-minute TED talks you can watch about how to parent more effectively. There are also books and TED talks to be digested on how social media and technology is destroying a generation. To save you time and money, I offer you a three-word solution: Unstructured Free Play.

Your kids need to play without your looming presence. They must develop the skills for managing social interactions and negotiating conflict without a big adult figure constantly intervening. We have been asking the wrong questions about the psychological well-being of youth. What social structures amplify a sense of isolation and alienation? The answer will never be as simple and reductionist as screen time. Instead of searching for the boogeyman, look within and around to uncover what can be done to extract moments of social connection and growth. 

  • Let your kid walk to the local playground with a friend.
  • Open up your garage and let the kids go nuts playing and messing around.
  • Give them some snacks and set them loose to go in the woods and climb through streams and over fallen logs.
  • Get out of the way by 20%, let the kids roam, and they will probably be alright.

For a review of the literature on social media use and mental health: Download Google Doc

***NOTE: I wanted to share the primary resource that allows me to workout on the road — A smartphone app called Sworkit. What I love is that I can choose from a wide range of functional mobility workouts that I can do anywhere, as long as there is a floor. You can receive a 10% discount if you use the code in this link: Sworkit with Todd . Enjoy and contact me with questions or for my advanced core routine.****

Todd Kashdan
sworkit routine
Source: Todd Kashdan


For a review of the literature on social media use and mental health:

For more on child-centered play: