In the days of hunter-gatherer humanity (in some parts of the world, not all that long ago), there were certain tools needed for survival.
Sharp tools. Dangerous tools. Knives, machetes, bows and arrows. It was essential that people understood exactly how and where and when to use them, whether it be for hunting, clearing brush, or self-defense. It was crucial that they learn how to handle these tools with ease and control. The stakes were high. The consequences were dire. When mishandled, these tools would cause irreversible damage.
Surely, the tribe elders kept their kids far away from knives. Surely, they did not let their young within ten feet of a machete. Surely, they kept all the weapons hidden and didn’t let kids lay eyes on them until they were old enough to hunt.
Except, this overcautious approach would only result in clumsy hunters; full-grown adults who, after finally being trusted with something sharp, could easily fall and trip on their own knife. The years of mastery they needed to cross the threshold of ease and comfort and control necessary would take years to develop. They would be horribly, horribly unprepared.
Instead, these tools were fully integrated into hunter-gatherer society. There was no escaping them, no turning a blind eye, no convincing kids that they didn’t really need a machete, anyway. In fact, sometimes miniature versions were created, specifically with kids in mind: because the earlier a tribe member could learn to handle them properly, the better.
Native American kids were raised learning how to hunt, sew, cook, take care of an infant, and more. They “played adult,” so to speak.
Generations later, our tools have evolved from knives to wheels to machines to screens, and we’re experiencing the same conundrum:
How can we protect kids from dangerous tools – screens – when they are fully integrated into society?
The good and bad effects of limiting screen time
According to research from Common Sense Media, 98% of kids under the age of 8 in the US are in households that have at least one mobile device.
Their screen time resides roughly around 2 hours a day, whether from TV, video games, computer games, tablets, or phones. From the ages of 8-10, this screen time rises to 6 hours a day. And from the ages of 11-14, screen time jumps all the way to 9 hours a day.
Whether we like it or not, screens are an everyday facet of life. And there is no denying that there are negative effects.
Science shows that screen time is closely correlated with obesity, sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. It can negatively impact cognitive and emotional development in children, contributing to language delays, emotional disorders, and hyperactivity.
Kids’ eyes absorb blue light like a sponge, making them even more subject to cybersickness than adults. Cybersickness is that horrible, post-screen-time fatigue one experiences after too long of staring at a screen: blurry vision, queasy stomach, and unexplainable irritability.
As scary as this all sounds, there isn’t much long-term literature on the effects of screen time. And more recent studies are discovering the positive effects of screens on kids’ overall development.
Researchers at Oxford University found that kids who spent 1-2 hours a day on screens actually had higher levels of psychosocial engagement than kids who spent 0 hours a day on screens.
Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said:
In light of our findings, calls for blanket technology bans and age restrictions on technology access do not constitute evidence-based or indeed ethical advice, particularly as screen usage in some cases has a net positive impact.
Screens are also inching their way into classrooms, bringing with them learning benefits. Games like Kahoot! and video games like Minecraft encourage creativity, critical thinking, resource management, problem-solving skills, and more. And online schools like Synthesis are built entirely on game-based infrastructure.
The cherry on top is the social aspect of screen time: gaming with friends, playing online after school, and building healthy interpersonal relationships in different ways. Basically, screens do an exceptional job of merging play and education – which, as we know, is the special concoction of genius.
There’s just enough substantial research out there to support each claim: screens have both good and bad effects.
Just like knives and machetes in a hunter-gatherer culture, our job is to help kids master these tools so they don’t get hurt.
And just like knives and machetes in a hunter-gatherer culture, overprotecting kids from these everyday tools may potentially handicap them in the future.
Screens and overparenting
Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is known for his extensive work on education and play; and he has an unorthodox take on kids’ screen time.
Whenever we prevent our kids from playing or exploring in the ways they prefer, we place another brick in a barrier between them and us. We are saying, in essence, ‘I don’t trust you to control your own life.’ Children are suffering today not from too much computer play or too much screen time. They are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom.
We know that many hours of self-directed learning and unstructured play are essential in developing kids’ social, emotional, physical, and cognitive abilities. When parents micromanage their kids’ activities, it sucks the life out of this self-directed learning. It completely removes from the equation the option for kids to self-regulate.
While restricting screen time is well-intentioned, it may be more harmful for kids than helpful when it comes to their holistic development.
Jon Lasser, PhD, is a psychologist at Texas State University who co-authored the book, “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.” Lasser encourages parents to release the belief that restricting screen time is the golden rule:
Simply banning screens may backfire. It’s important for kids to develop the capacity to self-regulate, and parents who try to micromanage screen time may inadvertently interfere with that self-regulatory development.
The psychology behind restricting screens is also important to understand.
By taking away screens as a punishment, or granting extra time on screens as a reward, we are affirming the premise that screens are the most valuable and precious thing in the household. We are inadvertently assigning screens novelty, mystery, and value. Naturally, this is only going to elevate kids’ interest.
Consider the case of alcohol.
Many households shroud the subject of alcohol in mystery; or, even worse, they treat it as a taboo. This is an adult drink and you absolutely cannot even sniff this until you’re a trustworthy adult, and that won’t be for a while, so run along now.
Kids are smart. They pay attention. They feel when they’re not being trusted, and this typically only spikes their curiosity in whatever they’re not being trusted with. Unfortunately, when it comes to alcohol, this often manifests itself in binge-drinking in college and making terrible decisions, because kids are unprepared for what alcohol is capable of, or how to handle it. They have been overprotected and overparented, and now that they can actually make decisions for themselves, they are incapable of self-regulating. And it causes harm.
We’re not saying you should let your ten-year-old drink alcohol. We’re saying it may be more beneficial to equip your kids with the tools to protect themselves in the world rather than restricting, micromanaging, preventing, and controlling their world itself. That’s not doing them any favors.
This is, of course, true when it comes to kids and screens. Peter Gray says:
In our culture today, parents and other adults overprotect children from possible dangers in play. We seriously underestimate children’s ability to take care of themselves and make good judgments. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.
Not only does micromanaging kids’ time on screens deprive them of opportunities to make their own decisions, it is also impossible to sustain.
Screens are everywhere – and the world may not share your ideals. If your kid can’t access screens at home, they can access them at school, with friends, or at other people’s homes. They will have the opportunity to be on screens when you’re not around.
The best option may be to act as more of a guide and less of a dictator: trust your kid to make their own decisions, deal with their own mistakes, and then have cooperative, problem-solving conversations about how to better understand their own threshold for screens.
But that threshold is different for literally everyone.
Screen time hours for different ages and screen planning
While there are no absolute truths when it comes to planning screen time, there are soft recommendations.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) suggests screen time hours by age:
- 0-18 months – no screen time, except to video chat with an adult
- 18-24 months – less than one hour a day co-watching educational programs with a caregiver
- 2-5 years – 0-3 hours a day
- 6-17 years – 2 hours of recreational screen time a day
Despite these suggestions, thought leaders like Peter Gray continue to push back against these restrictions:
Why do we keep hearing warnings from ‘authorities’ — including the American Academy of Pediatrics — that we must limit kids’ computer play? Some of the fearmongering comes, I think, from a general tendency on the part of us older folks to distrust any new media. Plato, in The Republic, argued that plays and poetry should be banned because of their harmful effects on the young. When writing came about and became technically easier, and was enthusiastically seized upon by the young, some of their elders warned that this would rot their minds; they would no longer have to exercise their memories. When printed novels became available to the masses, many warned that these would lead the young, especially girls and young women, to moral degeneracy.
The truth is that tolerance for screen time is highly individualized. Even as adults, we all have vastly different relationships to our screens. Kids are the same.
One young boy, for instance, may have no problem when his mother tells him to set his Nintendo down. Despite his time on a screen, he remains calm, understanding, and patient. His brother, on the other hand, may throw a screaming temper tantrum. Screens may make him anxious, jittery, impatient. The behavior changes are visible – and overtly negative.
Clearly, these two boys have two very different thresholds for screen tolerance, and perhaps differences in temperament and self-expression. Enforcing the same limits would be a mistake.
That’s why “screen plans” are on the rise.
What is screen planning?
Screen planning is exactly what it sounds like – developing a system around screens that meets everyone’s needs.
In Lasser’s book Tech Generation, he includes a tool called the Family Assessment of Screen Time (FAST), which helps families work through their feelings about screen usage and negotiate boundaries – together.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a similar tool called the Family Media Use Plan to help parents and kids alike feel heard on their feelings about screen time so they can establish healthy boundaries.
Families can use apps such as Screen Timeout or tools like passcodes to help control screen time.
Screen-planning tools like these are emerging as we recognize that the most important facet of screens is not how much time is spent on them, but how they are affecting kids.
Seeing negative behavior changes after screen time is, of course, a red flag. But the temper tantrums may have less to do with the screen itself and more to do with a child’s lack of say in their choices.
This is where screen planning can be enormously helpful.
Ask your kid: How did two hours of TV make you feel? What can you do differently next time to make sure you don’t feel this way?
The next time they sit down to watch TV, nudge them: Remember when two hours of TV made you feel sick? How long will you watch today?
Rather than battling it out about screen time, it might be worth considering changing your approach entirely to make screens a cooperative and collaborative process where everybody wins.
The bottom line on screen time limits
Screens are a double-edged sword.
There are kids like Cole Summers, who tap into their genius by poring over Warren Buffet videos on YouTube. Then, there are kids who scream, cry, and wail because their iPad died and they’re unable to think of another way to entertain themselves.
There are the Peter Grays of the world, who encourage parents to give their kids unlimited screen time. Then, there are the institutions who urge parents to restrict screen time at all costs.
Our relationships with screens are universally volatile. The most beneficial thing we can do is pay attention, cultivate conversation, and guide kids to successfully setting boundaries for themselves.
Empowering kids to self-regulate will feed healthier development for them for life – and a healthier relationship between parent and kid.