Screen Time, Revisited

More planning = less guilt

Reminder! AMA tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. ET. (You’ll also get an email reminding you.) Think up your not-about-COVID questions.

During the pandemic, screen time in my house went up by 1,000%. I guess I should put more limits on now? Is it bad that I’m still doing this? Am I ruining my kids? 

Surely we all have a version of this question. Especially as school ramps back up more “normally,” we may have new habits that are … hard to break. The remote school, the summer, the general pandemic fatigue have all left many of us relying on screens more than we once did. How bad is this, and what should we do?

(I’m going to focus here on what I call “passive media” — TV, video games. I’ll leave social media for another day.)

In The Family Firm, I make a pitch for separating our thinking into time and content. On the content front, we have relatively little good evidence that the content of television impacts behavior or other outcomes. You have probably heard that watching violent TV or playing violent video games makes kids more violent, but the evidence for that isn’t compelling. It’s correlation, not causation, or it’s a very short-term laboratory effect (i.e. for a brief time after playing a violent game, kids are kind of hyped-up, but it’s hard to see this translate to real-world behavior).

That doesn’t mean you should let your kids watch whatever, since there is a lot of scary/inappropriate content out there. But it means you should be curating based on what you think is age-appropriate for your kid.

Much more important is the time. When kids are watching TV or playing video games, they aren’t doing other things: exercising, doing homework, playing the piano, drawing, bothering you, etc. Since our days do not include infinite time, this “crowd out” is worth considering. In studies where we do see impacts of television time — notably, a study in Norway on test scores, and a similar one in France — researchers argue that the impacts are driven by the time spent, not the TV per se.

Your reaction here may be some version of “So you’re telling me that kids shouldn’t have any TV because their time is better spent elsewhere?” No, not exactly. 

What if your kid told you they wanted to spend an hour before dinner staring at the wall?  My guess is a lot of people would be overjoyed — proud, even. Not only does that give me a break to cook (or sip a glass of wine while I boil pasta, anyway), but I can convince myself it’s meditation. What a great meditator my child is! Very advanced. 

TV watching isn’t meditation, of course, but when you focus on the time aspects, I think it’s clear that there is likely a place in your day for screen time. It’s not inherently bad. The question is: What is that place?

Make a Plan

With this in mind, the most important way to think through the question is to pull out your Family Firm worksheets and figure out where it fits in your day; what kind of TV time actually works for your family. I cannot tell from the way the question at the top is worded whether the person wants their child to watch less TV, or if they are happy with the current situation but just feeling guilty. 

If you are happy with the situation but feeling guilty, just try to stop feeling guilty!

If you look at the schedule and feel that, in fact, what you are doing now isn’t aligning with your ideal, then make a new plan. In doing so, try to separate out any guilt feelings about TV itself from the time involved. Think about it as “wall staring” time: When in the day or week does it work for my child to stare at the wall?  

One important note: Because TV in the hour or so before bed has been shown to interfere with sleep for kids, it isn’t a good time to schedule TV. Sleep is very important! This is the one time of the day when TV watching per se is different from wall staring. It would be fine to stare at the wall for an hour before bed. It is not ideal to watch TV then. 

State the Rules

Having made this plan, there is a question of how to implement it. 

There is a lot of data suggesting that kids are responsive to consistency. Once you make the plan, my suggestion is you convert it to “rules” and then stick to them. Rules are helpful because they tell kids what to expect, but they can also help you hold the line without seeming like a jerk.

When I teach, I put a lot of rules on the syllabus, like “No extensions.” When someone asks for an extension, I can say a version of I wish I could help, but there’s a rule.Students are very responsive to this, even if they likely understand that I made the rule. 

Kids’ rules can work in the same way. When something is a rule … it’s a rule. This doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict. And in fact, when you try to limit screen time (if you are going to try to do that), you should expect to get some conflict. Expecting it doesn’t make it go away, but it may make it easier to deal with. On the other side, there is a likely reward. If you can institute consistent rules, and you implement them consistently, evidence suggests that kids respond. 

The bottom line: Decide what amount of screen time fits into your life, make a rule, and go with it.

But what are your rules?

I often hesitate to answer this, since most parenting decisions seem so specific to your family. And it isn’t like you should necessarily do what I do! But here are my rules, if you’re wondering. 

  1. TV during the week before dinner: 5:12 to 5:55. Yes, that’s right, we start at 5:12. Do I remember why? No. And BTW, pre-pandemic there was never TV during the week. So be it. 

  2. TV on weekends: same before dinner; also sometimes 30 minutes before lunch.

  3. TV on airplanes: unlimited. 

My unlimited TV on airplanes is a good illustration of the general principles here. Yes, six hours of TV in a row feels viscerally bad to me, having grown up in a strictly limited TV household. But I remind myself: What’s the alternative? On a plane, it is literally staring at a wall or, probably, annoying me until I’m not my best parenting self. And relative to that, watching 12 episodes of Miraculous back to back doesn’t seem so bad. 


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