How much screen time is good for kids? An increasingly common approach to the children’s screen time is one that views technology as simply another activity in the life of a 21st century family. This sentiment reflects the realism that video games and other digital media are here to stay, have many potential benefits, but are not the most important activity in a child’s life. Parents who use this approach in their homes are often individuals who use the Internet and other digital media as a part of their daily lives and their professions. They tend to recognize that much of their communication, learning, and productivity is based upon their facility and involvement with digital media.
The majority of adults who regularly use digital media in their jobs recognize that too much screen time–sitting in front of their television, computer, or video-game console all day–does not constitute a healthy lifestyle. They also see that digital media can enrich a lifestyle. They are likely to use technology such as listening to music on an iPod when they are exercising, using video-chat apps like Skype and Facetime to talk to family and friends, or playing a mobile game such as Words for Friends with their children as a method of keeping in touch with them.
Families that have a “just like any other activity” mindset when it comes to screen time do not, however, allow it to become an “anytime, anyplace” approach. Their kids do not spend hours upon hours playing Modern Warfare 3 or Facebooking their friends at 2 am. These families have open discussions about their children’s responsibilities in their homes, doing their schoolwork, and taking care of their physical health and wellbeing. While families using this approach may occasionally see children become extremely excited about a new game and want to spend hours playing it after they get it, they are unlikely to continue to do so for an extended time.
Should you choose to use this approach approach for your children’s screen time, we have some suggestions:
- Keep very open communication about the importance of other play activities. If you notice your children have become overly involved in something such as Facebooking, playing a Massive Multiplayer Online Game, or they can’t stop texting their friends, comment, express your concerns, and set some screen time limits if necessary.
- Pay attention to your own screen time. You have to model healthy involvement with digital media. While it’s okay to sit down in the evening and relax by watching television, it’s also important regularly to be involved in other activities such as reading, listening to music, or participating in a hobby.
- Encourage your children to learn about healthy lifestyles in general, not just those involving digital media. The best way for them to learn about healthy lifestyles is for their parents to model them. Help them to have a balance in what they eat, how they exercise, and their engagement in social vs. solitary activities.
- Regularly engage in a wide variety of family activities, that includes family screen time. Have a family movie night, go to the beach on the weekend, cook dinner together, or go for bike ride. In addition to playing board games, play an exergame like Kinect Adventures: River Rush or Wii Sports Bowling.
- Talk about decision-making on a routine basis. Purposefully, discuss your choices and experiences at work or when you were younger in front of your children so they can make informed decisions for themselves. Do not be afraid to share mistakes as well as triumphs, kids can learn from both.
Who is it good for?
The “just like any other activity” approach to screen time, when applied intentionally rather than due parents’ lack of involvement or capacity to monitor a child, may be appropriate for a variety of children.
- Healthy, well-functioning pre-teens and teenagers. We see this approach as a good tool for helping tweens and teens with decision-making. Part of being a teenager is learning to self-regulate and make good decisions. They need to make good choices about substance use, risk-taking behavior, and efforts in school. Those who display the capacity to make good decisions in these areas are likely to make similar decisions in their screen time and digital-media involvement.
- Children who already show a wide range of interests and those who have a proclivity for regular physical activity. These children are less likely to get overly immersed in digital media or to avoid doing their schoolwork. It may be adequate to have discussions about appropriate and inappropriate use of digital media with them.
- Children who want more access to digital technologies and want to prove to their skeptical parents that their screen time is not interfering with their schoolwork. For these tweens and teens (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. Set up a trial period where you regularly discuss how this approach is working.