An Argument Against Setting Screen Time Limits

From Dr. Kulman: I was recently asked to justify giving children unlimited access to age appropriate screen time. While I am not fully in agreement with this position, it forced me to consider the many ways we can make screen time better for kids. Please view this as discussion prompt. I’d like to know what my readers have to say.

Setting limits on children’s time with digital media is a losing battle. The 2015 report issued by Common Sense Media indicates that teenagers (ages 13-18) use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day and that tweens (ages 8-12) use an average of six hours a day, not including time spent using media for school or homework. A previous Kaiser Foundation study reported children ages 8 to 18 were spending an average of 7 hours 38 minutes a day with digital media and 10-1/2 hours when multi-tasking was taken into account.

As parents and educators, we are obviously not doing a great job in setting screen time limits and probably should take a step back and ask ourselves if  screen time limits are actually constructive. We are already reaching the limit of how much time children have to engage with these digital media. Rather than restricting them from digital media, our efforts are better spent making their screen time more productive and encouraging other activities.

One way to do this is by following an age-appropriate Play Diet. A healthy play diet for an elementary school-aged child involves extended opportunities for physical play, art and musical activities, social and family time, and homework. Parents and teachers who can make these types of activities fundamental and engaging will not need to set rigid limits on children’s screen time. For preschoolers, a healthy play diet will have very little screen time in it. Rather than setting limits for elementary school children, it remains the obligation of parents and teachers to be the “owners” of the digital media. This means that parents loan their iPad or allow the child to play on their computer.  Televisions, computers, and game-console systems are not allowed in a child’s room.

For teenagers, it’s a different story. A healthy play diet for teenagers includes a substantial amount of digital play. Text messaging, Facebooking, Instagramming, Tweeting, Snapchatting,  and smartphone usage are the most important methods of communication for today’s teens. One can also argue that many of today’s engaged academic teens become increasingly knowledgeable in content and problem-solving skills by virtue of their Internet use. However, regular physical activity, time with family, and the pursuit of artistic or hands-on activities need to be part of a family’s expectations and daily routine. To the degree that this is the case, we will pay less attention to setting limits on a teenager’s involvement with screen time.

A second, equally important strategy is make screen time more productive.  Adults need to get kids to talk and reflect upon the thinking skills, problem solving and content creation that result from their involvement with digital technology, so they can connect it to their world. Game publishers and educators also need to identify and market popular games and technologies that also teach content and skills. Many engaging video games and movies are well suited to teaching history; why not use these same tools for learning math, problem solving, and the sciences. For kids with learning, attentional, and social emotional issues, technology is often their portal into connecting with peers and engaging in learning about their world.

In today’s digital world, it is all too easy to escape in front of a screen and get lost in nonproductive pursuits. The solution is not to limit screen time but to make digital activities more beneficial, while creating an environment in which other types of play are highly valued, modeled, and expected. Using digital tools with our children and students, employing technology to expand our children’s interests about others and our world, and making technology a tool that enhances social, physical and creative experiences should be our goal, rather than simply setting limits on screen time.

What do you have to say about screen time limits? Comment below or come talk to us on Facebook.



Featured image: Flickr user Randen Pederson

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