One of the most difficult tasks of 21st-century parenting is setting limits on your child’s screen time. Screens are incredibly immersive, alluring, and potentially addictive. Because screen time is generally seen in a negative light, many parents feel obligated to limit their children’s access to screens. In the Facebook world, where parenting no longer occurs behind closed doors, many parents feel inadequate if they fail to set screen-time limits for their children. But do you really need to set limits on your child’s screen time?
Let me state the obvious: setting screen-time limits is often not a concern for many well-rounded children, who have plenty of interests, do well in school, have a supportive group of friends, and do not want to spend all their time in front of a screen. For these kids, encouraging autonomy, self-regulation, and good decision making with screen time is probably great training for them as adults, as there will always be fascinating screen-based and non-tech activities that threaten to take them away from their priorities.
However, for many other children (some of whom are diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Learning Disabilities, executive-functioning problems, anxiety, depression or other psychiatric issues), screens are not only alluring but also the only activity in which they want to engage. Whether this comes in the form of playing Fortnite six hours a day or checking their social-media feed every two minutes, these kids struggle to separate from their screens. Our perspective at LearningWorks for Kids is not that screen time itself is harmful, detrimental, or a risk to a child’s brain but instead that excessive screen time takes away from other healthy activities that are good and necessary for kids (and adults). We are concerned that too much screen time means too little time for physical, social, unstructured, and free play. Kids who spend all their time with screens don’t get outside, experience health risks such as obesity and sleep deprivation, and rely on electronics for their relationships rather than in-person connections.
An alternative view is that screens and screen time are not a problem but simply another important activity for 21st-century children and that there is nothing wrong when children want to spend most of their time engaged in screen-based activities. From this perspective, this is similar to children who want to spend all their time playing sports. A comparison of the two in light of preparation for future vocations indicates that children who spend all their time engaged with screens are thousands of times more likely to become employed as technology experts than to become professional athletes.
While this approach doesn’t truly fit with our perspective at LearningWorks for Kids, where we state that “digital media and technology, when used mindfully and responsibly, can be a great asset for 21st-century children,” we don’t think that unfettered access to digital media is good for kids. The use of limit setting only as a last resort can help children whose love of technology allows them to develop skills and make connections they might not otherwise have done. However, I caution parents that this should not be a laissez-faire approach. Parents still need to monitor what their kids are doing and not use technology as a babysitter or allow children’s technology use to enable them avoid the demands of life. They need to be engaged with their children about what they are doing with their screen time. Parents whose kids are always engaged with technology can find good role models for engaging their kids by observing the parents of athletes, who routinely drive their kids to practice, go to their games, and talk about their children’s gameplay.
The bottom line is that if you do not want to set limits on your children’s screen time, you need to make a concerted effort to be engaged with them about their screen activities. Try not to allow screen time to become an isolating experience away from family members. Learn more about joint media engagement, play a few games, and find ways to leverage your children’s tech play into other activities and interests.
Here are a few articles that provide more information about a “no limit” approach to screen time:
Why We Don’t Have Any Screen Time Limits in My House by Joelle Wisler of Scary Mommy. An honest assessment of how difficult it can be to monitor and set limits on children’s screen time.
Screen Time for Kids Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing by Jordan Shapiro. Raises the question whether we are demonizing screen use and holding our kids back from their digital future.
I Let my Kid Have Unlimited Screen Time by Patti Woods from Today’s Parent. Describes her concerns about how other parents might view her decision and shares her observations about how access to screens have promoted creativity, self-regulation, and problem solving in her son.