How much screen time is good for kids? Parents who use the “anytime, anything, anyplace” approach essentially do not set limits on their children’s use of video games and other digital media. These parents often subscribe to the importance of learning from digital media. They observe their children developing an expertise in not just video games, but also in electronic devices in general, as well as developing a facility with learning anything new of an electronic nature. They hear their children freely discussing their strategies and problem-solving skills when playing video games, and they often note how their children appear to be happy and content when engaged with digital technologies. (These parents often allow their children to have video games, consoles, television, and computers in their children’s rooms.)
Many parents take a hands-off approach to their children’s involvement with video games and other digital media. Some may lack the time and energy to monitor their children’s involvement with digital media. However, others see their children’s involvement with digital technologies as being a preparation for their future activities and are not overly concerned with the portrayal of violence or other inappropriate content found in some video-game play. The majority of parents who take this hands-off approach consciously choose it, and they have conversations with their children about viewing inappropriate material on the Internet, cyber bullying, and overly-graphic representations of violence.
Parents who take this approach are apt to over-extol the virtues of digital media for learning and developing 21st century skills. Typically, they view video game violence as taking place on the screen and not having a negative impact upon the child who views it. They may choose to expose their infants to early learning videos and give their toddlers an iPad to play with to help them learn letters, numbers, and shapes prior to the age of 2.
Cautions for these parents include the need to ensure that infants and toddlers engage in a variety of hands-on, sensory-motor activities that include touching, smelling, and experiencing nature. Most recent studies suggest that prior to the age of 2, children get very little from involvement in digital media, and that it serves to substitute for more “nutritious” activities that would be better for them. As kids get older, children who spend a disproportionate amount of time involved with video games and other digital media learn a variety of 21st century skills, but they may lose out in opportunities that involve physical activity, artistic pursuits, and face-to-face social interactions.
While I am not a big advocate of the anytime, anything, anyplace approach, it speaks to certain realities that we experience as parents today. I recall a situation in which my youngest son, who was then 12 years old, wanted me to buy him the game Halo. It was a mature game, rated M, and I told him I did not feel it was appropriate for him to play. At that point he stated, “Dad, I play it at Zack’s house all the time, so what’s the difference?” This was a great opportunity for a discussion about values. Eventually, I let him get the game at the age of 14 (which I still did not like), and then at the age of 16 allowed him to take a television and his video-game console into his bedroom. Interestingly, at the age of 17 he moved all of these things out of his room so that he would more readily play less of immersive games such as Skyrim, which he is playing now.
Should you choose to take the anytime, anything, anyplace approach to your children’s digital-media use, we have some suggestions:
- Hands off should not mean no monitoring, as children benefit from having some types of limits set with them. It should instead mean a discussion about appropriate and inappropriate digital-media activity and the importance of self-monitoring.
- The best way to know what your kids are doing is to join them. If you choose to take an anytime, anything, anyplace approach, make sure you spend time playing games, social networking, or watching videos with your kids.
- Anytime, anything, anyplace is a poor strategy for younger children. While children can learn an incredible amount from apps, educational television, and websites built for preschoolers, they learn best if you are sitting there with them and processing what they are doing.
- Find ways to encourage learning opportunities with your children’s digital-media use. Share a great website that you recently viewed or try a new app that’s helped you develope organizational or planning skills.
- Encourage children to engage in a variety of digital-media activities. While there are very clear problem-solving, planning, and social skills that one can develop while playing a game such as World of Warcraft, there is only so much to learn from any one game. Using a variety of games and other digital media expands the types of skills and learning opportunities for your child.
Who is it good for?
The anytime, anything, anyplace approach, when applied intentionally rather than due to parents’ lack of involvement or capacity to monitor a child, may be appropriate for a variety of children. Again, we strongly advise against this approach with younger children.
- Healthy, well-functioning teenagers. Part of being a teenager is learning to self-regulate and make good decisions. When teens leave home to live on their own or go to college, they will have the anytime, anything, anyplace model available and will need to use self-control and good decision-making. Teenagers need to make good choices about substance use, risk-taking behavior, and making efforts in school. Those who display the capacity to make good decisions in these areas are likely to make similar decisions in their digital-media involvement.
- Children who do not become overly-engaged in digital media, and who are busy with other activities. These children are less likely to get overly immersed in digital media to the exclusion of other activities. It may be adequate to have discussions about appropriate as opposed to inappropriate use of digital media with them.
- Children who want to prove to their skeptical parents that their digital media use is not interfering with their academic performance or their social/emotional development. For these children/teenagers (we suggest waiting at least until preteens for this strategy) it is best to give them a set amount of time such as a school semester to prove themselves. Make sure that you set this up as a trial period with the expectation that regular discussions about how it is working will be included.