Not all screen time is the same. At least I hope not. At least that’s what I tell myself when I sit down to my computer in the morning and strap myself in for ten to twelve hours of emailing, video-conferencing, video editing, and various other forms of copy writing; interspersed, of course, with the occasional youtube video of a guy smashing his testicles in a skateboarding accident, courtesy of my younger brothers.
I have two children, eight and ten, respectively. For their entire lives we have had no television in the house, but there are computers. I have always regulated their computer use like a prison guard during visiting hours. They have noticed the difference between our policy and those of our neighbors, but until recently, simply telling them that we make different choices in our house was enough.
A few months ago, battles over screen time limits began to become more frequent. So I did what any educator having classroom governance issues would do, I revisited the issue in a community meeting with all stakeholders: the kids, my wife, and me.
The outcome of that meeting is a policy (outlined on green paper in the photos below – as they are posted on the wall of our living room) that was collaboratively established. For three weeks, everything went smoothly. I taught the kids to create and record their screen time minutes in a shared Google Sheet where I had generated formulas to calculate the ‘A’ time and the ‘B’ time. They were actually getting more screen time than they had ever had before and neither my wife nor I were hassling them about it. Empowered by a system they helped to construct, and given the trust to monitor themselves in a way that makes me comfortable, my children seem content.
For the first time since we initiated the new screen time monitoring system, my daughter went to Grandma’s to spend a night and a day. When Grandma returned my daughter to us after her stay, Grandma voiced a complaint. “I think the rules at your house should be different than at Grandma’s house. This two hour per day limit is inappropriate.” My daughter had told Grandma that she could only watch one movie with her because she would otherwise exceed her screen time limit for the day. Grandma did not like that limit.
Now there are two separate issues here. One is whether or not Grandma’s house should have different rules. That is a rats nest that I would rather not enter in this blog post. The other is whether or not the rules we have established are too stringent or “inappropriate.” Since Grandma is a sage woman who raised two fabulous women, one of whom I am fortunate enough to have married, her critique (rare as it is) gave me pause.
Here is the research summary… It would seem that nobody really knows how much screen time is too much. Nobody seems to know which types of screen use, if any, are worse than others. All the studies are associative, and none that I found distinguished differences in health outcomes (physical and mental) between children who consume less than one hour per day to those consuming only slightly more than that. It is more clearly the case that kids who spend more than half of their waking hours in front of a screen are less healthy, more depressed, and have a more difficult time focussing in school, but the studies are focussed on the extreme consumers and do not address the direction of the causality.
Some salient points from the research I read to prepare for my next discussion with Grandma:
- The Kaiser Family Foundation surveyed over 700, 8 to 18 year olds in 2009 and discovered, again, that screen time has continued to increase. The average 8 to 18 year old spends 7.5 hours per day in front of a screen. And…
“Youth who spend more time with media report
lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment.”
- I found some anecdotal evidence that this excessive screen time is having a negative impact on the eyesight of Canadian children.
- NPR reported on a small, poorly controlled study in August of 2014 that found students who went to a 6th grade Outdoor Education experience without any screen time for five days had better success recognizing emotions from pictures of faces than did their peers who stayed behind (presumably spending 7.5 hours of screen time each day).
- The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends zero screen time for children under 2 years of age and a limit of no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen time per day for children and teens claiming that,
“Studies have shown that excessive media use can
lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and
eating disorders, and obesity.”
The AAP is probably the most authoritative source I consulted in preparing for my discussion with Grandma. The AAP recommendation is the last bullet point above. Liberally interpreted, they are saying that children and teens should not have more than two hours of screen time per day. Maybe no more than one hour. But they gave no recommendations about how to spend that screen time.
Can I Watch Jaws?
Let’s examine the extremes to inform this investigation. I think we would all agree that even thirty minutes a day of horror films or pornography for a child would be too much. That is screen time we can all agree that should never happen for children. There are even laws that govern this. But what is the difference between Friday the 13th (rated R by the MPAA) and Mommie Dearest (rated PG)? Should your seven-year old watch the notorious abuse scene from Mommie Dearest even if they are watching it with you? What about Jaws (also rated PG)? Is it okay for your eight year old daughter to watch this with you on the couch?
Now let’s examine the case from the other direction. Should we limit the time your fifteen year-old spends typing up an essay she writes for school to one hour per day? What about the three hours your twelve year old likes to spend playing in an online chess tournament on Saturday nights? Probably not going to put a governor on either of those situations?
Not All Screen Time is the Same
While we may have a consensus that eight hours of screen time per day is too much, and that certain types of activities that one can find on the internet are universally inappropriate for children, there is a lot of room for interpretation and for setting your own rules. In my house, one hour per day seems to be just enough for my son who would like a little more time to watch stupid cat videos, and that same hour per day is more than my daughter seems to want – she uses it primarily to email grandma!
I had hoped to be armed with some clear statistics to back up our house rules for my discussion with Grandma. No such luck. If there is a grandma in your family with whom you have negotiated a screen time accord for the children, do share! And if you come across any good Youtube videos of guys suffering hubris on their skateboards or mountain bikes, send that my way too. I can’t get enough of that stuff!