The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life

by Anya Kamenetz

Clock Icon 18 minute read

PART I
Kids and Screens

DIGITAL PARENTING IN THE REAL WORLD

YOU PICKED UP THIS BOOK BECAUSE YOU ARE CURIOUS, AND LET’S FACE IT, A little anxious about kids and screens. I am too. I wrote it to help us both get past that anxiety. To cut the guilt, turn down the volume, tune out the noise, and look deeper. Then we’re going to make a plan.

But first, a story.

Late one night in the early 1980s, I was a towheaded little girl in a nightgown perched on the foot of my parents’ bed watching TV. The screen showed a towheaded little girl in a nightgown, perched at the foot of her parents’ bed, watching TV.

On the television within the television, the credits rolled. The parents were dozing. My parents were dozing. The broadcast day ended on the televised television. The national anthem played over a shot of the American flag. The little girl scootched closer to the screen. I scootched closer to the screen.

Then a terrifying mass of green ectoplasm burst out of the screen within the screen. The movie was Poltergeist (1982).

In that moment was born a lifetime phobia.

Not of ghosts. I love ghosts. I even went through a middle school seance phase, appropriate to the bayous of South Louisiana where I was reared. No, I was deathly afraid of closing credits. The fear has faded over time, but to this day, when a movie ends I prefer to hustle up the aisle. When a TV episode is over I have to minimize the window before the Netflix countdown gets to the next episode.

A quarter century later, my older daughter’s introduction to inappropriate content came on the potty. We had tried everything we could think of to get a toddler to sit down long enough to go number two. And as suggested by a number of other parents, the only bribe that really worked was the offer of a short video on our phones.

We found plenty of kiddie-approved potty training material on YouTube: a catchy ditty about washing your hands from PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood; a nice instructional skit from Elmo; a hyperenthusiastic Japanese-speaking panda. Then one day, I happened to click on a five-minute cartoon. It was called “Potty Training.” It had millions of views.

It turned out to be an episode of an incredibly filthy, obnoxious cartoon web series, apparently intended for dimwitted adolescents. My daughter loved it, of course, and asked for it again and again.

A quarter century from now, my daughters may be raising kids of their own. If the forecasters are to be believed, we’ll all be plunged into a gently glowing alphabet soup of AR, VR, AI, MR, and IoT—augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, and the Internet of Things. We’ll be inhabiting the bodies of avatars 24/7, exchanging GIFs with our sentient refrigerators, and using virtual assistants to ward off telemarketing bots. Digital experiences will be so immersive and pervasive that Yellowstone National Park will look like today’s Times Square. By then the existence of screens as separate entities, with borders and off buttons, will be a quaint, half-remembered state of affairs.

The terrified little girl inside me asks: How worried should we really be about kids and tech? Where is all of this heading? And what should we actually do about it—now, in the “real world,” a phrase that as of the early twenty-first century still has some meaning?

These questions have resulted in the book you’re reading. It’s a book that I wish I’d had when my firstborn daughter arrived: a clear, deeply researched, and nonjudgmental take on an issue that faces nearly every parent today. I hope it will be a good resource for you as, together, we try to navigate the rocky shoals between fear and hype and untangle the growing role of digital media in our family lives, and in our lives, period.

I’m not presenting myself to you as an unassailable expert. I’m just a parent, one with a solid research toolbox, trying to work this stuff out as best I can. I’ve been writing about education and technology for over a decade. I became a parent in 2011. I belong to the first generation of parents who grew up with the Internet. And I’m now raising two members of the first generation growing up with screens literally at their fingertips.

Children today first engage with digital media at the average age of four months—or almost as soon as they can focus past the end of their noses. In the 1970s, the average age was four years.

According to a Pew survey in 2015, almost half of parents of school-aged kids say that their children spend too much time with screens. On average, children in the United States spend as much time daily with electronic media as on any other waking activity—including school.

Astonishing. But so what?

As parents, we find ourselves without traditions or folk wisdom—or, crucially, enough relevant scientific evidence—in answering that question. Traditional authorities, covering for real gaps in knowledge, fall back on tired tropes.

I think the self-proclaimed experts have let us down in our attempt to make sense of this incredible new reality. In the absence of Grandma’s advice or a wealth of up-to-date research studies, the source of knowledge that we consult to resolve not only these conflicts, but seemingly every question and hiccup in our children’s lives and our own, is, ironically, the Internet. Dr. Google is the new Dr. Spock.

But the digital information ecosystem that we’re all living in has an inherent bias toward clickbait. That means the existing books, articles, video segments, and blog posts out there about kids and screens all seem to portray worst-case scenarios, to push our buttons so we will keep pressing Like, Share, and Play.

And that in turn means that the crucial questions of digital parenting aren’t only about our kids. They’re about our use of digital media too. Are you embraced by the virtual village or menaced by the virtual mob? Is the phone a magical work-life balancer or a constantly bleeping attention-sucker?

Some of this tension is not new. Moralists raised the alarm over radio, cinema, and then television, all of which in their turn arguably changed childhood just as much as, or even more than, today’s tiny screens.

But today’s devices are mobile, meaning we’re bringing them everywhere all the time, and they have touchscreens, making their interfaces intuitive even for infants. These two new aspects have intensified existing anxieties about the influence of older media like television and video games, with their power to lull, to obsess us, to “overstimulate or… inappropriately stimulate developing brains,” in the words of pediatrician Dimitri Christakis, and to transmit messages to our children in our homes that are out of our control as parents.

In the twenty-first century, few parents escape without considering their children’s use of screens. It’s part of our model of what makes a good, conscientious parent. If you don’t ration and control screen time like candy, you can at least have the decency to act guilty about it. But is screen time really the new sugar?

This is an exploration of the real world of parenting in the digital age. I surveyed over five hundred parents to find out how parents just like you are really making, and breaking, screen time rules. And I talked to the researchers. I can tell you not just what the experts are saying, where they agree and disagree, but at home, when no one is looking, what they’re actually doing as parents with their own kids. The best-known expert recommendation about screens, until very recently, was the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) rule of “no TV before age two.” It was based on little evidence. Nine out of ten parents do not follow it. In 2016, it was significantly altered—but still without very much evidence for the new version.

The research landscape, it turns out, is marked by large gaps, and much hotly contested territory. Still, the best evidence we have currently suggests that if you are functioning well as a family otherwise, there is a huge amount of leeway in the screen radiation your kids can absorb and still do just fine. TV is not DDT. In fact, many of the observed negative effects of screen time are utterly confounded by the realities of social inequality in America. Simply put, the children of lower-income, less-educated parents are both more exposed to screens at younger ages and more subject to a host of other ills. Also, a lot of the issues that come up with screens and kids, both physical and emotional, are traceable to a single effect as old as electric lights.

Technology is ubiquitous. The air we breathe is saturated with Wi-Fi signals. Outside a few tiny subcultures, there is no control group. This is our reality. If you’re looking for a book that beseeches you to turn your back on all that and move to the wilds of Maine, this is not that book. (It’s been written a couple of times, anyway.) Instead of nurturing escape fantasies, let’s think like scientists. I wanted to unpack my own irrational fears and look at them in the light of day. And I want to help you do the same. I’m going to give you an algorithm of sorts so you can figure out the screen strategy that best suits your family today. Don’t fear unknown poltergeists.

First, look for evidence of harms related to proven risks. These include attention problems, weight problems, sleep problems, and academic or emotional issues. They can relate to screen use in general or certain occasions or types of content in particular. I’ll go over the questions to ask when your child encounters screens at school and with peers, and what you as a parent should know about privacy, marketing, sexting, bullying, and other common concerns.

Next, explore your own feelings about where media fits into your family. You may rely on screens as a babysitter. Device use may cause you guilt or contribute to family conflict. It may feel uncomfortable to negotiate and set boundaries. Or, screens may be a warm family hearth; a source of fun, wonder, and excitement. Sometimes all of the above. I’ve started advising other parents on how to create and own realistic boundaries and revise them in a reasonable way when circumstances change. One point that psychologists and family therapists stand firm on is that hypocrisy and inconsistency in boundary-setting, on any issue, makes for confused, sometimes angry kids—and lots of conflict.

Finally, hash out your own use of screens. Maybe you feel constantly on call, harried and distracted. Or maybe it’s your partner who seems preoccupied. Maybe devices help you get more things done, or maybe they’re an escape hatch from the pressures of home. Social media could be a source of invaluable parenting wisdom and support or a locus of extra conflict. The Internet and social media can be a powerful, necessary source of support for parents, but when it gets out of control it can be equally disruptive and damaging.

I’ve lived the positive side. I spent two years struggling with infertility before conceiving my first daughter and went through another year of treatments and procedures with my second. During those times, online message boards and Facebook groups formed a vital, virtual support group for me. The women there were fully engaged with all the gory details I didn’t want to talk to anyone else about—not my husband, not my family, not my friends. I couldn’t have gotten through conception or pregnancy without them. I will never know most of their real names or identities.

Yet the platforms we use to make these kinds of connections are neither benign nor neutral. As a journalist covering technology for years, I’m all too aware that one of the world’s most powerful industries is keen to capture our attention and direct our choices as parents. As the adage goes, if you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

You might want to change your practices online, or pull back altogether. Once you’ve taken stock, you may try to shift your family’s habits, as we have, limiting use by time, place, occasion, content, priority, and/or specific activity or type of media use. I’ll give you workable solutions to choose from, based on the real-world decisions that other families have made and stuck to, with good results, and starting at any age.

What may be even more challenging is the next step: discovering and unleashing the joy of screen time with your kids. Yes, I said joy. Particularly when shared, screen time can have meaningful benefits: creative, emotional, and cognitive. For modern, far-flung families, or the many dealing with divorce or other separations, screens can weave family bonds more tightly. With a little attention, you can choose habits of social media and Internet use that help you be the parent you want to be. Part of what this book is about is how to manage research and weigh evidence and advice when making decisions, not just about screen time but about most things. It’s important, now more than ever before, to be curious and critical about your sources of information and where to place trust.

Parents, prospective parents, grandparents, educators, and mentors, this book is for you. Use it as a springboard for discussion and reflection, to discover how you feel and to decide how to approach parenting in the digital age.

Given what we do know, and how much we still don’t know, what is the best analogy for how to understand the impact of screens on children?

On the one hand, some would have you believe that screens for kids are like smoking: There is no safe level of exposure. Every little bit could hurt. One father confessed to me that he has that feeling that every minute his toddler is engrossed in a screen is adding to his “bad-dad debt.” I think a lot of parents share this feeling, especially since the one doctor’s recommendation that has made its way into public consciousness says “no screens before age two.”

The second scenario is that screens are like food. Yes, there are endemic problems that come with excess. Yes, there is junk that should play a small part in anyone’s life. But it’s overkill to imagine that any single bite, or byte, is toxic. Unless, of course, you are part of a sensitive minority with a severe allergy—and I think equivalent populations may exist, particularly when it comes to certain media products like violent content or video games. At the same time, we can recognize that food is necessary, and the right foods can be powerfully pleasurable, healing, and life-enhancing. By being thoughtful about what behaviors you model and how you introduce foods to your kids, and by sharing the creation and consumption of great meals with them, you can lay the groundwork for joyful lifelong habits. And the same is true for media.

Research can help us draw better-quality distinctions. Activists can push for better labels. Public education efforts and regulations can all make a difference. Slowly, habits can change, at least among those with the privilege to make better choices. But it won’t be easy—because our deep evolutionary systems are challenging our very will to choose, because structural inequalities in our society make it difficult for many people to change.

I ran this comparison by Dr. David Hill, an amiable man who favors bow ties. He is responsible for communicating the American Academy of Pediatrics’ various positions to the media. He said, “With diet, harm reduction measures seem to be turning the tide of the obesity epidemic. With tobacco, on the other hand, there really is no safe level of exposure at any age. My personal opinion is that the diet analogy will end up being more apt.”

We don’t yet have a set of solidly evidence-based recommendations that say, “Healthy screen time looks like this.” But I have come up with my own take on food writer Michael Pollan’s famous maxim: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”

THE (SOMETIMES) SCARY SCIENCE OF SCREENS

THE LAST MAJOR PIECE OF FEDERALLY FUNDED RESEARCH ON CHILDREN AND media in the United States was titled “Television and Behavior.” It was published by the National Institutes of Mental Health. In 1982. Needless to say, quite a few new questions have presented themselves since then. The world of research on kids and touchscreens especially, and on the social impact of new media more generally, is young, hotly contested, and full of drama. Enduring a tantrum-prone toddlerhood, if you will.

It’s not just we parents who are confused. The experts are talking past each other. And they disagree, often dramatically. “The real challenge is finding what constitutes healthy screen use and a healthy amount of it,” says Dimitri Christakis. (I first met Christakis and many of the other researchers named in this chapter at a 2015 convening at UC Irvine organized by Children and Screens: The Institute for Digital Media and Child Development. Children and Screens is working to create a new, interdisciplinary research agenda on these topics.)

Christakis, affable with graying temples and glasses, is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. He’s also an author of many foundational studies about the impact of electronic media on young children. And he’s the co-author of the one rule most people are familiar with about kids and screens: the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 1999 recommendation to avoid television viewing under age two. In 2016 that recommendation was officially revised—more on which later.

If media is something like food, it makes sense to hear what the doctors have to say about its effects on body and mind. As I quickly learned after plunging in, the bulk of the existing scientific literature on children and media really reads like a list of the top anxieties that keep any parent up at night: obesity, low-quality sleep, aggression, attention disorders. Part of this barrage of anxiety reflects a systemic bias across scientific disciplines and subjects, first in how experiments are designed and conducted, and then in what research is published and subsequently covered in the media.

Dan Romer is the director of the Adolescent Communication Institute at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “Any time there’s a new technology,… it raises concerns,” he tells me. “A lot of the research, in order to get published, they focus on the harms.” This observation applies to all the areas we’ll discuss in this chapter and the next one: experiments that show correlations between screens and negative effects receive more attention than experiments that show nothing conclusive, and those that show benefits are less likely to be conceived or conducted in the first place.

“We can make preliminary recommendations, but it’s based on such limited evidence,” says Melina Uncapher, a young, rising-star neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco. Glamorous in cat-eye glasses, she is involved in setting a national research agenda around kids and screens.

And here’s the rub. To a large extent, Uncapher tells me, the ability of science to discover the truth about kids and screens will continue to be hobbled in the future. Not just because of a lack of funding or industry opposition, but because of the very nature of the question.

The gold standard for scientific evidence is the randomized controlled trial, in which researchers divide subjects randomly into two groups. One group gets the treatment (a pill, or an exercise, or whatever) and the other gets some kind of placebo, or nothing. In this way researchers can account for unobserved differences between groups.

But with human subjects, randomized tests aren’t always allowed. You can’t randomly assign pregnant women to use crack cocaine just to find out what effect it has. And, it turns out, you can’t randomly assign babies to watch television.

“If the initial studies show a relationship between x and y that is negative—say, heavy media multitaskers seem to be more distractible—that suggests a negative relationship that could be causal,” says Uncapher. “And no ethics board in the country would allow you to put kids in a condition that may cause negative cognitive changes.”

Children are vulnerable. Screens may very well be harmful. So you can’t do a controlled study in which you subject children to more screens. As a result, “most of the research out there is all correlational. We can’t really say a lot about the causality.”

If you can’t do an intervention study where you give kids more TV to watch, what about a study where you ask families to limit TV?

Christakis has tried this. It didn’t work. “In the past we’ve done media reduction studies,” he says. “They’re painful because you spend an enormous amount of effort and you achieve an effect size of around twenty minutes a day. Say from four and a half hours to four hours, ten minutes.” In short, it was too hard to get many families to alter their lifestyles for science. As a researcher, he says, this is profoundly frustrating. “It’s like, what the hell have I really accomplished?”

Okay. So what about natural experiments? There are groups within our society that limit screens: the Amish, for example. Orthodox Jews, at least one day a week. Other religious groups, like evangelical Christians, might eschew mainstream commercial media but have developed their own competing electronic media (VeggieTales, anyone?). Families at Waldorf schools and some homeschoolers strive to limit screens. These groups have something else in common: they are out of the mainstream in many ways—culturally, politically, economically—all of which makes it difficult to generalize any effects of being screen-free from that population to the typical kid.

Starting with infants, we’re allowing engagement with screens to become the single identifiable activity that takes precedence above all others. What’s happening all over the world is a giant experiment. And there is essentially no control group.

Taking that into account as much as we can, this chapter reviews the best-established scientific findings, and the biggest remaining questions, in what’s called “media effects research.”

There’s also a laundry list of emerging mental, social, developmental, behavioral, and emotional issues that have less evidence but still have researchers keeping an eye out for links to growing screen use. That’s in chapter 3.

Immediately afterward in chapter 4, we’ll look at the positive evidence about how young people are adapting resiliently to the ubiquity of digital technology, and how technology can help children overcome deficits, learn, create, and connect with others. So—it gets better.

THE BOOB TUBE

The bulk of evidence we have about kids and screens, dating back decades, concerns television. In a way that’s all right, because children still do more essentially passive video watching than any kind of interaction with screens. But researchers suspect that interactive media, such as games, apps, and social media, is very different from TV. They just disagree about whether it’s generally more harmful or more benign—or whether it’s even useful to generalize. Certainly from the average person’s perspective, the smartphone and tablet era feels different from what came before. It’s all-consuming and all-encompassing. We are within inches of screens at every waking moment.

On the one hand, the screens are more individual and less communal than the electronic family hearth that was television. On the other, they can be tools for communication and creation, not only portals for passive absorption. Even when our kids are supposedly doing the same thing we used to, say, watching Sesame Street, they’re watching very differently: choosing clips with their favorite characters on YouTube, skipping commercials, streaming episode after episode (after episode) on demand.

While we’re on the topic of research difficulties: parental education, parental income, and parental self-efficacy (the belief and confidence that you are an effective parent) are all correlated with less screen time for kids. If richer, more educated, more confident parents are more likely to have the wherewithal to limit screen time, it follows that less screen time is going to be correlated with more positive outcomes for kids regardless of the direct impact of the media itself. Researchers can attempt to control for this confounding factor, but they can’t always succeed perfectly, especially when ethics in many cases prevent randomly assigning children to imbibe different amounts of media. This also means that if we are concerned on a societal level with excessive screen time, mitigating it probably involves more social support for low-income families, particularly those headed by single working mothers.

TIME

The first fundamental shock in the literature is about time.

About as soon as our babies start discovering their own toes, screens are part of their world. My younger daughter smiled at her grandparents over Google Hangouts at just eight weeks old.

Television has been with us for a long time, of course. And some researchers suggest that overall viewing hours have been stable for the past fifty years. But having constant access to screens while out of the home is a new phenomenon. Most of the upward trend in screen exposure has occurred not gradually, over the last forty years, but suddenly, over the last fifteen.

A 2011 survey covered nine thousand preschoolers. On average, these children, between ages three and five, spent 4.1 hours in the company of screens daily. “Preschoolers’ cumulative screen time exceeds recommendations and most previous estimates,” the report observed, quite an understatement. And that’s by parents’ and caregivers’ own reports; presumably they’d often be motivated to understate the total.

These are children who sleep, usually, twelve hours a day. They may not see working parents for more than two hours on a weekday.

I asked Yalda T. Uhls, a child psychologist and author of Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, to put that figure into context. “There are media-light families that barely use it at all,” she says. “But at the same time there’s a lot of different kinds of families. A lot of people come home and that’s what they do. They turn on the TV and leave it on.… The vast majority of America is in the middle and that middle number is four to five hours a day.”

A 2003 study found that two out of three children age six and under live in homes where the TV is left on at least half the waking hours, even without viewers present. One-third live in homes where the TV is on “most” or “almost all” of the time—children in this group appeared to read less than other children and to be slower to learn to read.

Turning on the television is the simplest and easiest way to keep a young child occupied and thus physically safe with minimal intervention. So who’s going to leave the TV on? When are we going to leave it on?

People with multiple children to look after.

People who can’t afford lots of toys or books.

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