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How Does Our Screen Time as Kids Inform Us as Parents?

As parents, we should think about how we were affected by screens as kids.

Source: iStock/Yobro10

I'm going to start this blog some questions for you. I'd really like you to participate actively and take some time to reflect upon these questions. These are meant to be rhetorical and thought-provoking. However, I'm going to try an experiment and leave this blog open for comments. No haters, please! Sadly, when I've left comments on before, I received a lot of hate-filled comments. If you don't like my blogs, that's okay. There are plenty others out there to read instead of mine.

So, if you are open to sharing some of your experiences and thoughts, I encourage you to do so in the comments section. However, please DO NOT disclose too much personal information. I'm interested in your general thoughts/experiences NOT specific, detailed examples containing personal information. I will do some self-disclosure within this blog as an example.

Are you ready?

Questions About YOUR Screen Experiences as a Youth

Think back to your youth. Did your parents have restrictions about what screen content you could access? Were you exposed to media content within movies, TV shows, magazines, music, video games, and maybe even the Internet that were not age appropriate? Gratuitous violence? Nudity? Sex? Drug use? For instance, did you watch any "slasher" movies or "Skinemax" as a kid? Did you sneak into any R-rated movies at movie theaters? See movies like Porky's or American Pie before you even hit puberty? Play violent video games such as Mortal Kombat? Did you engage in sexting in chat rooms or on AOL's Instant Messenger?

Were some (or many!) of these screen experiences ones that your parents had restrictions about? Did your parents know about your exposure to media that they would deem as inappropriate? And, if they found out, would they have been (or were they) upset? Why did they have these restrictions? Did they explain their reasons to you when they set their limits? What do you think they were trying to "protect" you from? Did you agree with their limits and the reasoning behind them? If/when you did get caught breaking their limits, what were the consequences? Did your parents restrict the amount of your screen time? Do you think you had too much as a kid? How about as an adult - do you look back and think their restrictions and consequences were appropriate? Or were your parents so lenient that you think they should have been setting stricter limits?

The Negative Consequences of Screen Time?

If you are like me, and most people, you probably were exposed to media content as a kid that your parents would not have approved of. Depending upon how old you are, perhaps you even engaged in some, shall we say "risque" business on the Internet when you were a kid/young teen. Maybe it was just occasionally but perhaps it was A LOT. Also, you may have had more screen time than was "good" for you.

Okay, are you ready for the really tough questions? Did exposure to such screen content harm you or the others involved? If so, how? Did you feel more scared, depressed, or anxious because of the type of media to which you were exposed? Did it undermine your self-esteem? Can you think of specific examples? Did exposure to sex, drugs, rebellion, and alcohol within the media influence you to engage in similar behaviors as a youth? Did it have a negative impact on dating or romantic relationships? Do some of these influences still linger? For instance, do you think watching slasher films as a kid affects you now? How about the amount of screen time that you had? Did you suffer ill effects from having too much screen time as a youth? Do those negative effects still persist today?

There Is More to This Story

Did you see what I just did? I only asked about the negatives. But, by doing so, we aren't getting a more complete picture of your screen time experiences as a youth. You surely benefited in many ways from your screen use as a kid as well, right? I mean, we don't just get the negatives of screens without the positives. Think of all the fun you had watching movies with friends, playing video games, chatting online (or on the phone) with friends, etc. Recall the engaging magazines and books you read (remember that they are a form of media too!). Perhaps you started learning programming as a kid. Think of the friendships that were forged or enhanced by your screen use. Recall the power of those shared experiences of watching those favorite movies and TV shows with friends and family members.

How did you benefit from screen use as a kid/teen? Did it enhance your life in ways? Did any movies inspire you to achieve something? For instance, did watching The Karate Kid get you into karate, Chariots of Fire get you into running, or Breaking Away get you into cycling? Do some of these screen time benefits persist to this day?

Some of My Inappropriate Screen Experiences as a Kid

Let's say that there was A LOT of things that I saw on the screen as a youth that my parents would not have approved of...and didn't even know about. Still, there were a number of movies that my mom let me watch as a kid, even took me to see, that were R-rated. However, my media experiences were similar to those of my friends and probably typical of my generation.

When we first got cable TV, I was about 10 or 11. Needless to say, cable had no parental controls built-in. I don't even recall my parents telling me what I should/shouldn't watch back in those days. I suppose some of their expectations were transmitted informally. Many of the cable movie channels, such as HBO and Cinemax, did not show their R-rated movies until night. So, if my parents were out late, then it was up to me to use my best judgment. Hehe.

I also had a friend growing up, coincidentally named "Mike," whose parents set, as far as I can tell, no limits whatsoever on movies he could rent from the movie rental store. When we were at the video rental store, his mother would rent any R-rated movie we chose (as far as I can remember). Some of our favorites include such classics as Halloween, The Shining, Phantasm, The Fog, Humanoids from the Deep, Alien, Friday the 13th, and Caddyshack. Ah, I date myself!

While fairly lax regarding their parenting around media, my parents would not have rented many of these movies for me. This is where my buddy, Mike, and his mom, fit in. Did you have one of those friends growing up? YOUR parents might have been strict but your friend's parents were the "cool" ones who allowed almost anything or at least turned a blind eye? One of the timeless ways to circumvent parents' restrictions is to just go to a friend's house whose parents had no such restrictions. Easy-peasy.

Screen Time Harm to Me?

When I am looking at the harm to me, let me just focus on the many horror/slasher movies that I saw as a child and teen. Even before cable TV, I watched monster movie and classic horror films insatiably - Frankenstein, Dracula, Godzilla, King Kong, Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, the "Hammer" horror films, Psycho, The Blog, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, Massacre at Central High, and so many more. I "leveled up" when cable TV hit the scene, so the violence and gore were even more graphic.

Was I harmed from being exposed to all of these monster/horror/slasher movies? Well, I did become a psychologist. Hmm...maybe watching all of those horror flix DOES explain a few things. Physician, heal thyself! All jesting aside, overall, I think I was a fairly happy kid/teen. I had some typical teen angst and insecurities, but I don't think any more than most of my peers. I remember having a lot of fun with my friends, including those times in which we watched these horror flix together.

Somewhat surprisingly, I didn't really have a lot of nightmares as a kid/teen. I might have been a tad on the anxious side, but some of that, I think, is genetic because that tendency runs in my family. I do remember having trouble sleeping at night...a bit of insomnia during my later childhood and tween years. I felt a little "keyed up" at night for about 1-2 years. Was that because of the horror flix? Perhaps. However, another likely culprit is that my parents let me drink about all the soda that I wanted. I distinctly remember having Pepsi with dinner...almost nightly. So, I think it's more likely that I had trouble getting to sleep because of the caffeine in my nightly sodas than because of the movies that I was watching.

I do remember being a bit afraid of the dark in certain circumstances. For instance, when my family would go camping, and I needed to walk somewhere at night, I felt my heart racing as I imagined Leatherface or Jason lurking in the shadows of the night. Sometimes I'd even start running to my destination...just in case!

Was I harmed by those horror movies? Well, if we say some of the transient fears and anxieties that I described were "harm," then I perhaps they did a little bit of harm. Even if so, it was not severe or enough to interfere with my life in any noticeable way. It didn't stop me from achieving important life goals - having lots of friends, getting good grades, going to college, earning a doctorate, becoming a psychologist, falling in love, getting married, raising healthy and happy kids, and so on. Let's say I was a bit rough around the edges throughout most of my youth, but probably no more than anyone else - and a lot less than some.

Probably the best argument against my screen time as a youth was just the amount. I watched a a lot of mindless television - cartoons as a kid and sit-coms as I got older. I won't call Star Trek mindless - you get a pass, Enterprise Crew! Often, I watched these TV shows alone because my tastes were different from that of my parents and older sister. Still, I watched about as much TV as most kids of my generation. However, I was very active physically as a kid/teen. The TV and video games of my day couldn't hold my attention for very long, so I was outside playing football, basketball, tennis, and swimming.

Maybe instead of some of that screen time I could have learned guitar, a foreign language, volunteered my time to a charitable organization, or become a much better tennis player. But saying "I could have used my time more productively" is different than saying that my screen time was directly harmful to me.

What About the Benefits That I Experienced from Screen Time as a Youth?

First, I have to say that I really enjoyed these movies, as did my friends. To put things into context, I would have to say that at least 95% of my screen time was benign or even beneficial (e.g., I loved nature and science shows). Yes, some of the media was "not appropriate" for my age, but the vast majority was. I played a lot of video games as a kid as well. I just loved arcade games - I played all of the classics at the arcades with my friends - Donkey Kong, Defender, Galaga, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Tron, Centipede, Dragon's Lair, and so on. You know what? I don't really regret it either! I had a blast!

Funny, but I'm going all Lion King and Circle of Life here, but those video games of my youth inspired me to study the effects of video games on kids in graduate school, then work in the computer usability field for a time, and now I continue to study and write about the effects of screens. I even wrote a book about it, and here I am blogging about it! Sometimes life has a weird way of working out, right?

The Takeaway?

I might be wrong, but I would guess that the majority of adults, many of whom are parents now, had screen experiences during their youth that were roughly like mine. That is, some content was inappropriate for our age, we probably had a bit more than the "recommended" amount of screen time, and any ill-effects from our screen use were relatively mild or transient. At the same time, we can probably remember many positive experiences of screen time - the joys of video games with friends at home or the arcades, watching Star Wars, The Matrix, or Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, seeing beloved TV shows such as Happy Days, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends, and the wonders of interacting with friends online.

Did we turn out alright? Sure, most of us are rough around the edges - we were in our youth and STILL have a lot of room for personal growth. But how many of the significant challenges of our youth were truly caused by screen time?

Yet, screens are very different these days. There are more options, they are more compelling, our devices are with us wherever we go, and things kids/teens can get into that are quite alarming as a parents (e.g., tweens who are sexting, pornography, cyberbullying) that were not possibilities in our youth...or, at least, not to the extent they are now.

I struggle with many of these - just like you. My almost 16-year-old wants to watch Game of Thrones? Do I let him? My almost 8-year-old wants to watch Stranger Things and play Hungry Shark. Do I let him?

Some kids do have problems after being exposed to certain screen content. For example, when my eldest was about 10, he was over at a friend's house with a group of kids and someone put on The Walking Dead. He had periodic zombie nightmares for at least 6 months plus was more scared at night than prior to seeing this. I worked with a 5-year-old boy years ago who watched Jurassic Park (the original, with parents' permission!) and had recurrent dinosaur nightmares for months. Researchers can't do well-controlled studies on this (thankfully, as it would be highly unethical!), but my guess is that kids who somehow end up viewing pornography frequently experience at least some problems (e.g., become sexually active sooner, objectify girls/women, develop some unhealthy attitudes toward sex or sexual behaviors).

As parents, we must struggle with decisions around screen time. I'm for setting reasonable limits as a parent and trying to keep an informed, healthy perspective on these challenges. As I discussed in a recent blog, some of the short-term "harms" that kids might experience from exposure to certain media are not likely to affect them overall and in the long-run. Plus, these same kids are also experiencing some benefits from screen use as well. So, we can't focus on just the negatives. We need to try to see the bigger picture. We also need to separate what's "best" for kids from what is actually harmful. For instance, a child watching a bunch of slime videos on YouTube might use their time more productively practicing piano, but that doesn't mean that watching the slime videos were actually harmful.

NO ONE has a perfect childhood. In fact, trying to give kids a "perfect" childhood so that they can "achieve their potential" might be result in just the opposite! Part of our growth in life comes from making mistakes along the way. Yeah, I drank way too much soda as a kid. I was also a junk food junkie and avoided vegetables like the plague. Now I never drink sodas, rarely eat sweets, and am a vegetarian. Maybe my "less than ideal" childhood worked out after all.

If you have some thoughts and musing about your screen time as a youth - and any positive or negative effects from it - please share in the comments! Remember, please don't disclose too much. I'll try to summarize your comments into my next blog in which I will discuss what might be the biggest "harm" from screen time.

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