Kids and Screen time

If you are a parent reading this, my guess is you have been engaged in – or at least overheard –  a conversation similar to the following:

Parent A:  “I heard most of the high paying jobs of the future will require at least a basic understanding of computer programming, but our schools still aren’t teaching it.”

Parent B: “But I heard that you should limit kids screen time to 2 hours or less per day”

Parent A: “Yeah but I also heard that technology is the best tool to teach logic and other higher order thinking skills”

Parent B: “Yeah I heard that too, but also heard that we have to get kids outside and playing more.”

The issue of kids and screen time is one I personally found a bit overwhelming and finally decided to spend a couple hours researching the issues and debate. Spoiler alert, if you are hoping to find the “right answer”, I’m sorry to tell you that there isn’t one.  That said, with the information below, I do believe you can establish screen time parameters that will put your mind at ease and be of benefit for your unique child.

The 2 Hour Rule

In October 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a revised policy statement on  “Children, Adolescents and the Media” and its accompanying press release. Some of the key points within the report included.

  • Limit the amount of total entertainment screen time to <1 to 2 hours per day.

  • Discourage screen media exposure for children <2 years of age.

  • The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend >11 hours per day.

  • Computer time accounts for up to 1.5 hours per day; half of this is spent in social networking, playing games, or viewing videos.

Some interesting parts of the press release included.

  • The AAP advocates for better and more research about how media affects youth.

  • The amount of time spent with screens is one issue, and content is another. On the positive side, pro-social media not only can help children and teens learn facts, but it can also help teach empathy, racial and ethnic tolerance, and a whole range of interpersonal skills.

The first question I had was how are they defining “entertainment screen time”?  Does that mean just watching television programs, or would that also mean playing video games and apps?  If it includes watching television and playing video games and apps, do they mean all video games and apps?

To date, the AAP has not answered these nuanced questions. From a learning and cognitive developmental standpoint, I would find it silly to equate watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with playing Lightbot or creating an app with Scratch.

From my perspective, research is needed on differentiating between developmental/cognitive issues and eyesight issues. Specifically, all people, regardless of age can develop Computer Vision Syndrome that can cause dry, irritated eyes and headaches.  While research shows no long-term negative effects for adults with Computer Vision Syndrome, I have questions/concerns about how screen time could negatively affect children’s developing eyes.  

For adults, there is the 20-20-20 rule. Look away from the screen every 20 minutes, to a distance 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. For my children, I have them take at least a 5 minute break every 20 minutes. As technology becomes more prevalent in schools and kid’s lives in general, I hope the AAP can influence more research into this area.

Back to developmental and cognitive issues.

Another report often cited by those in favor of limiting screen time comes from UCLA and asks,in our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions? The report finds that children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media. Specifically, UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices. “Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

Based on what you just read, you may think that Greenfield would be adamantly against education tech, but as with all issues associated with kid’s screen time, its a bit more nuanced.  In a great NPR article, Kids And Screen Time: Cutting Through The Static, Greenfield provides her whole take on the issue.

“It’s all about how things are used. And how much they’re used. And what they’re used for,” says Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at UCLA and has been writing about screen time for 30 years.  Greenfield offers this example of good screen time: asking kids to write an essay using the computer. Word-processing software can help with spelling and grammar, and kids can use the Internet for research. Here’s the key: “You’re not substituting screen time for interaction time,” Greenfield says. “You’re substituting alone time with the screen for alone time with your paper and pen.” Greenfield describes a kind of cost-benefit analysis: Is this screen time coming at the expense of face-to-face time? And what unique value does the technology add?

The NPR article provides an example of an unique value at the Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles. When kids use tech, they’re often still working collaboratively — and doing things they couldn’t do without it. “We have a design class where they imagine a product,” Principal Zacuto says. “They design it. And we have a 3-D printer where they then create it. I mean, there’s amazing things going on that’s preparing them for the world.”


As the American Academy of Pediatrics and other research shows, what kids are using screen time for is equally as important as limiting the amount of screen time.  Personally, if my only two choices were allowing my kids to watch TV two hours a day as compared to learning to code and playing good educational apps (change link to apps page and delete) for three hours a day, I would choose the latter.

Fortunately, those are not the only choices parents have, and I believe some common sense should be applied. For example, I personally would have concerns if my child did ANY activity for over two hours a day, even if it were piano or art. My goal is to introduce my children to a wide range of activities so they know all the great options that are available to them in this interesting world. That said, if one afternoon my child wants to take a walk around the neighborhood taking pictures and videos with her tablet, and then come home and use cool editing software and merge it with videos her friend took. I am not going to say, “I know it will only take another hour for you and your friend to finish this project and put it up on youtube, but you have been looking at a screen for two hours, so time to stop.”

Overall, if parents mandate that the vast majority of screen time be spent learning to code, editing photos/videos, writing a blog or report, or playing educationally beneficial games. The issue of spending more than two hours looking at a screen will not arise because kids will want to do something else. Learning to code or think logically via other education technology is mentally taxing and most kids won’t want to spend more than two hours on such activities. As stated before, educational technology is not the same thing as passively watching TV or being on Facebook.

Just apply some common sense and make sure they take a five minute break from looking at the computer screen every 20 minutes, or only watch a half hour of TV. Except for movie night with the family of course 🙂

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