Screen time

How do you balance the need for kids to get outside and play with the importance of helping them become competent in the native medium of their world?

My world is dominated by screens. I am both literally and figuratively typing this on a screen. While I do this, I am interrupted by my smaller, pocket screen to tell me: I might have lunch plans; my friend arrived at his office; and that a stranger gave a star to my 256-character joke. Even as I typed that last sentence a portion of my brain was thinking about other ways I could be using one of my screens to check in on something different.

But I am cautious about how much I let my children look at screens. From the start, parents are warned about giving their children too much screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents…

Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.

Like most parents we were constantly worried that would screw up our kids up for life,1 so we followed this advice. I can’t say that the kids would have had different personalities if they had binged on Teletubbies2 as toddlers, but we did manage to create a household habit of not having a TV turned on most of the time.

Now that the girls are older, it’s challenging to figure out how to ease up on that earlier abstinence. Screens aren’t going away in the world; there are only going to be more and more screens that we interact with throughout our day. I want my girls to be competent in the native medium of their world.3 I want them to be able to beat World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. I want them to be curious about technology and how it works. How do I allow the girls to explore that curiosity while still making sure they also have adventures playing the backyard?

Part of me wants to give them open access to play with technology until they are sated. The rest of me doesn’t want to deal with the crankiness that would likely follow. I want to do the “right” thing and supervise my kids as they use these tools, but also want to give them the freedom to explore and figure things out on their own.

As I have moved most of my reading to my iPad, it also means that when I sit down to read a magazine article or a comic book, the screen draws the girls in like a hypnotist. If I were reading a print copy of The Economist, the girls would be moderately interested for a minute then go do their own thing. But since the same screen would grant them access to The Monster at the End of This Book, they look for any chink in my armor that might allow them precious iPad time. Even if I manage a stalwart resistance, they really want to turn the page.

They do get iPad time somewhat regularly, but I worry that I am rewarding them randomly and causing the most effective form of operant conditioning. I am more liberal with screen time than my wife, Kat. She’s much better at imposing arbitrary constraints like “15 minutes“ on screen time.4 I‘m a softie and will let them keep going until we have somewhere to be or their mother notices.

I also don’t want to deprive my children of mass culture. Much of my brain is filled with screen-based culture. Movie scenes, quotes from The Simpsons, that Family Matters was a spin-off of Perfect Strangers, these things allow me a certain common language with my peers. I don’t want to stifle my kids’ cultural literacy. Some days I came home from school and played outside, some days I came home and watched “The Disney Afternoon” until dinner time. My parents never enforced media time limits, and I still managed to go outside and play. But any reasonable person would argue that I probably watched too much TV.

I don’t know what the right answer is for my family. The good news is I don’t really think that there is a wrong answer. An hour or two more of screen time on a Saturday morning might make for a crankier Saturday evening, but it isn’t going to cause my girls to commit felonies. I hope I can stop worrying about it so much and approach how we spend our family time with relaxed deliberation and flexibility.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. We will. 
  2. Is Teletubbies still a thing? I don’t even know. 
  3. And zombie survivalist training, just in case. 
  4. Kat is quick to point out to me that the iPad has a built-in timer. I should probably use that. 

Photo by: Veronica Belmont

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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