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3 Things Parents Should Know About Screen Time

The latest research on screens should relieve some of our worst fears.

Key points

  • For most kids and teens, screens don't have a sizable positive or negative impact on well-being.
  • The best answers to the the question of, "How much screen time is too much?" are "We don't know" and "It depends."
  • Parents should focus on building and maintaining strong relationships with their kids before trying to manage their screen time.

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true" because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

Chinnapong/iStock
Source: Chinnapong/iStock

While I am more concerned more broadly about life satisfaction and happiness, I have written quite a bit about how screens affect our well-being, including in my book, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. Technology evolves so rapidly that researchers are constantly playing catch-up. We should strive to adjust our views according to findings from the latest research and be careful not to fall prey to the scary headlines.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" — often attributed to British economist John Maynard Keynes

For Most Kids, Screens Don't Help or Harm Well-Being Much

For most kids and teens, screen time does not have a significant impact on their well-being, positive or negative. This may be because, as human beings, we are incredibly resilient. If we think of the horrors that our ancestors had to put up with (e.g., famine, plagues, wars), screens represent a relatively minor threat to our well-being. In part, our resilience can be explained by the hedonic treadmill (or hedonic adaptation). Experiences that boost or lower happiness in the short term fade over time as we return to our baseline levels of happiness.

However, there are always exceptions. Thus, it can be true that, for a specific child or teen, screen use contributes to increased anxiety, depression, and failing grades. Similarly, for another teen, his or her screen use may help them live a richer, more fulfilling life. Such anecdotal examples can and do exist, and it can also be true that, for most kids/teens, screens don't affect well-being all that much.

Often, parents become frustrated and critical of their kids who are frequently on the screen. Chronic arguments over screen time (and criticisms directed at our kids about their screen time) cause their own form of harm. It might be the case that the conflict in the relationship over screens is worse than whatever concerns we have about screen time in the first place!

For many kids and teens who appear to be suffering from the ill effects of screens, it is likely that their screen use is a symptom of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues rather than the cause of them. We must be careful to not direct all of our attention on screen use because we will likely miss the underlying problems. Still, as some kids retreat into their screens to find a reprieve from their suffering, their problems worsen.

We Don't Know How Much Screen Time Is Too Much

There's no empirical consensus that answers the question, How much screen time is too much? The best answers, which most of us find deeply unsatisfying, are: "We don't know" and "It depends." Since, in general, typical screen use does not cause lasting harm (or happiness), for most users, parents shouldn't lose sleep over them unless there are significant struggles.

Our views of screens often reflect concerns about our values rather than harm per se. That is, we see our kids on the screens and think they could be doing "better" things with their time. For instance, for the kids who are playing Minecraft, we might wish they were out building a fort in the neighborhood with friends in real life (IRL Fort Night!). While there might be some validity to this grievance, missing out on some of the positives of building a fort with neighborhood friends in person isn't the same as saying that the time spent on Minecraft is actually causing harm.

That said, at some point, screen use might begin to infringe upon basic needs for sleep, physical activity, time outdoors, and in-person relationships. When screens do cause harm, chronic sleep loss would be one of those ways and probably the one that is most controllable as a parent, at least for kids and tweens. In addition, academic grades can understandably start to suffer when kids spend too much time on their screens. At some point, just about every parent has told their child something like, "If you spent as much time studying as you did on your screen, you'd have A's in every class!" Our kids just love to hear that one.

With many caveats, my (revised) educated guess is that 2-3 hours of recreational screen time per day for kids on school days might be the point at which screen use starts to cause some form of noticeable harm. Kids might be able to do double that on weekends, summers, and holidays before experiencing any harm. However, I am not suggesting that parents should allow that amount of screen time for kids. There's a difference between "What's the 'ideal' amount of screen time?" and "When does too much screen time actually cause noteworthy harm?"

As a parent and a psychologist, I think keeping younger kids (3-10) to more like 30-60 minutes of recreational screen time per day during school days and perhaps double that on weekends, holidays, and summers might be an appropriate soft target. Still, we should keep in mind that we can allow for many exceptions. Also, kids don't drop off into some abyss of suffering if they go over that amount.

Being a parent can be a tough job as it is, and we don't need some dark cloud of guilt and self-judgment looming over us if we don't manage screen time "perfectly." When it comes to managing screen time, we should aim for "good enough" and trust our parenting. If our kids are doing "good enough," then we should probably avoid battles over screen time.

"The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good." —Voltaire

Focus on Your Relationship Over Screen Time

All this focus on screen time misses the most important point. Before focusing on screen time, we should focus on building and maintaining a strong relationship with our kids. A strong relationship with our kids forms a protective factor and, after meeting our kids' basic needs, is probably the best thing we can do for our kids' well-being (in both the short- and long-term).

A strong relationship is our leverage of influence as parents: Rules Without Relationship = Rebellion. Our kids are more likely to listen to us and abide by our rules and limits when we have a healthy relationship with them. We don't want to let the push/pull over screen time start to define the entire relationship. We must pick our battles as parents, and oftentimes this means backing off about screens, especially as kids get older.

Once kids get a smartphone, it is really difficult to limit their screen time (except for bedtime!). While there's no "right" answer for when a child should get a smartphone, sometime around middle school seems reasonable. For kids and tweens, perhaps around 8-12 years old, a "smarter" phone option might be one like the Pinwheel phone that is built to be a tool and not a toy. It has parent-managed contact lists and does not have some of the trappings of a full-fledged smartphone that are of concern to so many parents (e.g., social media, YouTube, games, Google).

Finally, we need to model balanced screen use as parents. Importantly, the stronger the relationship that we have, the more that our modeling can influence our kids in positive ways. Even so, we need to strive for "good enough" modeling. There's no such thing as a perfect parent, and we don't need to stress ourselves out over trying to achieve the impossible.

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