Monday, August 19, 2013

Children and Technology: How Should We Manage Kids' Screen Time?

Jessie Willcox Smith, A Child's Garden of Verses
(Originally posted at
Is technology good or bad for my child?
This question is on a lot of people’s minds.  If you’ve ever seen a child with a touchscreen computer like a smartphone or an iPad, it’s easy to understand why.  The devices seem to enchant kids like few things that have come before – reliably absorbing them for a surprisingly long time.  And good luck taking one away!
Many parents experience conflicting feelings about their kids’ powerful attraction to touchscreen computers.  On one hand, it can be challenging (and exhausting) trying to keep a child content all day long – especially during long car trips or waits at restaurants and the doctor’s office.  Having a reliable “high tech pacifier” sometimes comes in very handy.  And the fact that kids can engage with interactive apps instead of just passively viewing videos means that they might even benefit somehow, by learning problem solving skills through games, for example, or expressing themselves through digital finger painting.
On the other hand, many parents worry about the opportunity costs of “screen time” – that is, time when kids aren’t exercising their bodies, interacting with other people, or experiencing the “real” world.  Others fear that the devices may in fact be too engaging – that once a child has visited the world of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninjas they might never want to come back…
The apparent paradox of digital technology
Parents are all over the map on how to manage their kids’ access to touchscreen computers.  At one extreme, some kids have unrestricted, unmonitored use of their own personal devices and spend tens of hours each week with them.  At the opposite extreme, some families try to keep their kids completely “screen-free” for as many years as possible.
Parents frequently ask some version of the following question:
How should I manage my child’s time in the digital world so it doesn’t interfere with their understanding and appreciation of the “real” world?
In this post, I want to explore how this question sheds light on the conflict many parents experience concerning their children’s use of technology, and how we might reframe the issue in a way that can help us move beyond that conflict.
I find it interesting that at the heart of this question is a kind of paradox, in that the “digital” world is at the same time seen as somehow less real yet more compelling than the offline (or “real”) world.
Think for a moment: what else in our lives is both less real and also more compelling than the alternatives?  Junk food and Ponzi schemes come to mind.  Junk food is less nutritious than whole food, but when given a choice, people – especially kids – often find the junk food more appealing.  Ponzi schemes are financially disastrous compared to legitimate financial investments and yet many people are lured by their false promise of quick riches.  If these are the kinds of associations that come to mind for people when they think about children and touchscreens, then it’s no wonder they experience ambivalence and uneasiness regarding children’s use of the technology!
If we stop for a moment and reflect, though, we realize that such comparisons can’t possibly be appropriate.  Touchscreen computers are simply a means for distributing content, like dinner plates or printer paper.  Dinner plates can deliver either junk food or whole food.  Printer paper can deliver a contract for shares in a Ponzi scheme or a U.S. government bond.  Similarly, touchscreen computers can deliver effective, developmentally appropriate learning experiences or “chewing gum for the eyes.”  In all three cases, to label the plate, the paper, or the touchscreen computer as “good” or “bad” in absolute terms is to confuse the delivery medium with the contents delivered.
In short: it stands to reason that touchscreen computers are not inherently good or bad for children, any more than dinner plates or printer paper are inherently good or bad for them.   It doesn’t, for example, make sense to compare the devices directly to junk food or to whole food; they can be used to serve up the digital equivalent of either type.  It all depends on how we choose to use them.
So what’s a parent to do?
While this shift in perspective does not provide hard guidelines for how to manage kids’ access to digital technology, it can help shift the questions that are generating conflict in parents’ minds.  In particular, the either-or question “Is digital technology good or bad for my child?” causes ongoing stress for parents because there appear to be big consequences for getting the answer wrong – but the question stated that way doesn’t actually have an answer.  The result is that parents constantly agonize over whether they are doing the right thing for their child, with no relief in sight.
A variation of that question asks, “How much screen time is OK for my child?”  This question certainly makes it easier to provide specific guidelines – various organizations have come out with clear recommendations such as “no screen time through age two,” or “limiting screen time to one hour per day is OK,” etc.  But this is like asking “how long should my child spend at the table with a dinner plate in front of her during the day?”  Setting an arbitrary time limit doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The important question is: What are they consuming from that dinner plate and how much of it?
Similarly, a more useful question regarding technology for parents is: “What are your kids doing on the touchscreen computer, and how much of each type of activity is appropriate?”  If all the child wants to do is watch nonsensical cartoons on an iPad, then a parent might reasonably decide to limit the daily amount of time spent on that activity. But what about the case of a three-year-old boy I know, who became so completely engrossed in learning all the countries of the world, their capitals, and where to place them on a map, that he rapidly mastered them all.  Ask yourself: would you allow the child to spend hours – even an entire day – studying geography using a paper atlas or a globe?   Now ask yourself: do you have a principled rationale for arbitrarily limiting his time engaged in the same activity on an iPad?  If you do, then well and good.  If you don’t, then imagining how you would manage the activity off the device can be a good guide for deciding how to manage their activity on the device.
Summary and Take-Aways
Parents want the best for their kids, and they experience unpleasant stress when they don’t know what course of action is best.  Here’s a quick summary on this issue with regard to children’s use of touchscreen computers:
  • Avoid the question, “Is technology good or bad for my child?”  It’s a trap with no way out.
  • Move beyond the question, “How much screen time is OK for my child?”  It’s like asking how long your child should sit at the dinner table – not very meaningful.
  • Let this question be your guide: “How much do I value what my child is doing and learning from a particular experience (whether they are doing it online or offline)?”  Each parent is in the best position to answer that question for their child and to make a judgment about how much time they think is appropriate based on their values.  It may not be quite as easy as setting arbitrary time limits for your child based on third-party recommendations, but at the end of the day it should leave you feeling more empowered to make good decisions on your child’s behalf and less stressed about whether you are doing the “right thing” for them.


  1. Thank you for clarifying the types of questions parents/caretakers need to ask. So, let’s transition this to the classroom. Some schools have a “no video” policy; or “We have computers so we don’t need iPads” point of view. Sometimes schools download apps and access websites simply because they are under the label of “educational” and/or they are free. Like your analogy of the plate delivering either junk food or healthy food, the delivery isn’t as important as the content. It is fair to say that educational videos/software/ websites/apps can present material and/or offer interactive learning situations in ways that are more learner centered than a teacher; or they can be the junk food of technology. How do schools determine their policies? Are their questions & mandates just as arbitrary as those you presented? What I’ve seen is that there seems to be tendency to latch on to any “educational” technology that provides feedback and data, even if the time spent interacting with the technology is not 100% learning (example, time to “play” as a reward). I don’t “reward” my students time to “play” after they have completed a task; we move on to the next lesson. (I’m not talking about recess or movement, of course those are incorporated.) It would also depend on what that “play” time looked like. It could be that what appears to be playing is really another problem solving situation. So, I think we have to take this on a case by case, program/app/website basis. I believe we need ways to help determine the educational value of individual technology resources. This seems to be a good place for education science.

  2. > I believe we need ways to help determine the educational value of individual technology resources. This seems to be a good place for education science.

    I couldn't agree more, Rene. The challenge is how to measure "educational value" in a way that is both accurate and useful. I'd love to hear what you and other teachers think about how to do that.

  3. Hi Dr. Connell,

    I’m a graduate student in developmental psychology at UTA currently taking an MBE course. I really enjoy your blog posts!

    I appreciate your perspective on avoiding the question of how much screen time children should be having. This is very similar to questions regarding food (“How much sugar is OK?”), exercise (“How much should they be playing and in what form?”), discipline (“Should I use time out?” “Should I spank?”), and a host of other parenting concerns. Your point regarding each parent being in the best position to answer those questions resonated with me. Of course, I value the large quantitative research that is being conducted and continues to be conducted on these questions, which has led to important recommendations regarding all of the above (e.g. corporal punishment probably isn’t a good idea). At the same time, however, I completely agree that parents are in the finest position to make these decisions for their individual children—individual being the key word. Children come equipped with their own personality that largely determines their experience with the world. For example, some children will respond differently than others to being put in time out, just like some will interact with an iPAD differently than others. In the end, the parent will make the decision about what is best for their child.

    I see family and friends consistently asking the above questions and my thought is always: “What is important to you?” If you personally value limiting time with personal devices, then you should model that behavior. Spend less time looking at your iphone/ipad/computer. If you personally value your child eating fruits and vegetables, avoid eating junk food with them. It seems that the best way empower your child to make good decisions is to model the behavior for them. Each parent will have different views of the importance of these questions, just like individual children will respond differently to certain environments and experiences.

    1. Hi, Catherine.

      You raise an important point, related to the interplay between formal research and parental values in making parenting decisions. It's subtle, so I want to build on your comments to draw it out a bit.

      I think people often expect the science to answer prescriptive questions like "Should I let my child use an iPad?" or "How much junk food is it ok for my child to eat?" or "Should I take this heart medicine?"

      The key point of the post is this:
      It is beyond the scope of science to prescribe what people should do in any given situation.

      This is very important, so I'll re-state it another way:
      Science can't *under_any_circumstances* ever tell you what actions you should or should not take.

      To see why, consider...

      Prescriptions take the form:
      "You should do X."

      For example, "You should take this heart medication."

      Scientific insights take the form:
      "If you do X, then Y is likely to happen."

      For example, "If you take this heart medication, then your chances of having a heart attack in the next five years are decreased by 50%, while your chances of having side effects such as persistent nausea and dizziness are increased by 90%."

      People always have to apply their values to determine what course of action to take. Do you want to avoid a heart attack in the next five years? Do you value that more than you value avoiding the unpleasantness of nausea and dizziness? If you do, then the science is helpful in informing you what you should do. But it never tells you definitively what to do. Sometimes this jump from description to prescription is easy to make - for example, if we had a wonder drug that would cure a horrible disease with no side effects then it's easy to slip from description ("if you take this drug then you will be cured, with no side effects") to prescription ("you should definitely take this drug"). But there's still a "translation" step from theory (description) to practice (prescription) in between.

      Similarly, with the iPad issues, I'm with you that it's good people are doing systematic research on the short- and long-term effects of children using digital devices in specific ways, and this can help people make good decisions that align with their values.

      The problem is that people often issue these prescriptions without having any basis - for example, "You should limit your child's use of digital devices to two hours per day." That can't be derived from science - it's prescriptive. And it doesn't provide any way for a person reading it to judge whether they agree with the implied values (or the quality of evidence and interpretation, which is a separate issue). What happens if my child uses an iPad for more than two hours per day? If there is evidence that something horrible is more likely to happen, then I'd probably agree with the prescription. If, on the other hand, the evidence indicates that children who use digital devices more tend to exercise less and so the outcome is the possibility of the child becoming overweight, then I'd consider whether my child spends enough time exercising and how nutritious their diet is, independent of how long they spend using digital devices, and would probably disagree with the prescription.

      The science could only tell us some things that are more or less likely to happen if a child does or does not use a digital device for certain periods of time daily.

      It would be better for the people summarizing the research to state the tradeoffs in a way that is accessible to parents so they can use it to make their own decisions based on what is important to them.

      The key is that in the best case the science and the parent's values need to complement each other as described above - the science is never an alternative source of information about what parents should do.