Children usually have some amount of screen time at school, devoted to obtaining or demonstrating knowledge of both the tool itself and the subjects under study. This question does not regard that screen time. It regards the time that children have at home when they are not at school.
Parents hold the key to introducing screen time to their children
Parents are usually the people who give their children an electronic device in the first place. So, determining a reasonable balance between screen time and the rest of what children do with their free time is another example of a values issue facing parents and guardians. It depends partly on the role that technology plays in the lives of parents, but even here, people have different perspectives. It is rare, but I have met some parents who do not want their children to even walk behind a person who is sitting at a lit-up computer screen. They are at one end of the fear spectrum over electronic devices. Others exist at the other end. They want their children to grow up being familiar with the technology and give even toddlers devices to stimulate or calm them. Still, other parents are immersed in the computer world as a career, yet would not allow their children around computers—at least, at a young age. They are worried about the seductive properties of these devices. So, the answer will depend upon what is important to the parents as they contemplate their responsibility to provide concerted cultivation for their children. All parents have their agendas regarding what sorts of skills they envision their children building. Usually, there are some commonalities, like skills in communication, innovation, problem-solving, compassion, and physical prowess in both gross and fine motor skills. Inspirational opportunities need to be provided by parents because children do not have the wherewithal to make such possibilities happen on their own. So, in the beginning, it is up to parents!
The rest of the world impacts upon children too
It reminds me of the old topic, a few decades ago, of giving children toy guns to play with. People were not sure whether it encouraged violent attitudes, so there were questions around this topic. What I discovered then was that you, as a parent, may hold off on this purchase, but you cannot stop your own father from giving your son a toy gun. In other words, not everything is within your control, when it comes to designing influences on your children. Your child will have neighborhood friends and cousins, and school friends, whose parents have different attitudes than yours. Your child, just like you, lives within his culture. So, you need to be prepared to explain to your child why you have made your choice. You have to have a good reason, and not just, “Because I said so.” This means that you have to really examine the background to your choices, and this takes self-awareness.
Again, parents need to know themselves
So, planning how much screen time you intend to allow your child to experience means analyzing your values around electronic devices, first and foremost. Your decision is primarily going to follow the answer to this analysis, and you are entitled to it. You also need to identify how you are going to manage those times in your child’s life when they are aimlessly wandering, or lying around, in what might be called a child’s “recreational” time. If you have read books about child development, you may want to provide stimulating objects that they will find intriguing and that they will learn from. This could be anything from mobiles, to stacking toys, to things that move, to pots and pans, to books, to paper and scissors and glue. What you might give them depends upon their age, but the point is to give them things they can explore and utilize and think about. Children actually need these sorts of things, so most parents do provide them, with joy and satisfaction.
The lurking problem
Where parents get caught up is in those circumstances where they themselves are busy with something, anything, useful and important, of course, and their children are not engaging with something so educational as the usual toys and manipulative materials. They seem to be at loose ends. Then, so easily, it seems like a gift from the sky to give that child something as mesmerizing as an electronic device. From that moment on, the parent is hooked. Along with the child. These screens give children movement, color, interaction, and the unexpected. Computer developers design such fascinating elements into their devices. On purpose. It makes the devices desired, and this leads to more purchases and more profit. But when we look at what is really happening, it is this: children concentrate on the screen so much that they become passive recipients of engagement. It is much like television, which was the previous generation’s go-to babysitter. How many children 20 or 30 years ago spent hours and hours in front of a television when their parents were unavailable for interaction? Hundreds. Thousands. Perhaps this adult generation of movie critics and filmmakers came from that beginning.
The results of too much screen time
The research is available, and it is not a simplistic “good” or “bad” scenario. It is somewhere in the middle, with both positive and negative results. It depends upon so many variables. It depends upon the sort of screen time they observed. It depends upon whether they played with toys while they watched the screen. It depends upon how much time they spent in front of a screen. If a child spends two or three hours a day at this activity, it means they did not spend those hours, essentially, doing anything else. Some parents have told me that they have noticed their child seems to have a hard time with “free time” without a device. They get bored quickly. They rely on someone else fixing their ennui for them. They show less initiative and creativity. This seems reasonable, simply because absorbing information from any screen means that they do not learn as much about creating their own entertainment. They probably spend less time in nature, bicycling, and running around with their peers. They may not spend time creating their own crafts and skits and games or engage in dramatic play with their siblings. They probably read less. They do, however, learn other things. The games and songs and dances that children watch on their screens are usually meant to teach them something. They may learn overall lessons from video games—like, to not put all of your eggs in one basket. These are useful lessons, and they enjoy learning them. It may help to have children share these lessons with their parents, to publicly acknowledge the learning they now realize they have gained. So, as is common with issues of what to do with your recreational time, there are choices, and you get out of it what you put into it. Just don’t be surprised if you see children learning the particular lessons they are designed to learn.
Balance is the key
Screen time will occupy one component of how a child achieves relaxation and stimulation in their after-hours. It is not everything. In order to understand the concept of creating balance in one’s life, children need parents to model that. When it comes to free time, parents have their own needs and habits built up over the years. Every adult is already balancing their various roles in life—gardening, house repairs, cleaning, preparing and eating food, organizing materials, socializing, exercising, taking courses, and engaging in recreational and life-affirming pursuits. Into this mix is added the same aspects in their children’s lives. It takes a heaping amount of care and awareness to balance the time needed for each of these activities, for both themselves and their children. Our lives are busy. We all tend to be “Do-bees” (from the Muppets chronicle)—human beings like constructing and being active and interacting with others. It is gratifying. Children need that too, and life at home is a dance around all of these interests.
Communication is needed if your child is so engaged in devices that putting them down is difficult
This is a problem to be worked out, like any other. The parent may begin by saying, “I have a problem with how much time you are spending on your [electronic device]. I miss your company. I need time with you. Let’s sit down and you can tell me what your needs are around your screen time, and your free time in general, and I will tell you mine. We will come up with a plan that both of us can agree on.” As a parent, you will be responsible for being firm and fair, for listening and speaking your own truth. You may want to present your case that balance is healthy in time management, as a general rule. You may want to write down all the options everyone can think of, for balancing screen time with other ways to occupy time, and then check each one over for practicability, convenience, and suitability for meeting in the middle. Choose the best options. Again, it is time-consuming but so satisfying to honor each person enough that they get their say…and at the same time to have to listen to the other side. A distinction sometimes must be made between wants and needs. It is in these reciprocal interactions that children learn how to solve problems, for what they need to understand is that there are many ways of seeing things, and in order to create comfort, everyone needs to hear everyone else, and honor their needs. This is a communication issue, although the spirit in which parent and child need to engage needs to be positive and caring for any communication strategy to work.
Power struggles: Avoid them like the plague
One note here is that the whole experience needs to be devoid of a power struggle, and this includes punishment and rewards. The minute that power struggles begin, they are lost, by both parties. A power struggle gives the wrong idea—that it is just fine if one person’s thoughts and feelings trump another one’s. The “winner” wins at the expense of the “loser”, who will resent it. Parents need to sidestep the temptation to lord it over their young children, or teenagers, by demanding obedience to their values. It may even be a good idea sometimes, on appropriate occasions, to not object to a teenager bingeing on video games, for example. If they are able to play them long enough, it may help them get this desire out of their system. A parent may also watch them play their games to share the excitement they feel. Being part of the experience helps parents to not be seen as always “on the opposite side”. I have seen this work; I have done this. The point here is to have teenagers learn how to be self-aware enough to monitor themselves, to discuss the effects of their computer or phone usage, and to learn how to turn away from these activities and towards other ones. You, and your teen, will have achieved success when you hear them saying, “Oh, I’ve stopped playing [whatever computer game]. It took too much time.”
If not screen time, then what else?
Part of the alternate options for screen time will be other activities that children will find equally stimulating and interesting, like kickboxing, or choir, or skiing, or art lessons, or tennis. So, this requires deep thinking, both parent and child together, about what other worthwhile activities children might be able to do when they are not on their screens. Choosing one, or several, of these possibilities results in cultivating children’s talents and interests. This cultivation is important, because learning such skills leads to self-esteem. Moreover, the exploration process often involves others, so they may share social opportunities, and develop a general optimistic excitement in life. It is a healthy act to nurture a child’s spark of interest in playing the saxophone, or swimming, or robotics, or art, or collecting artifacts, or dance. When a child engages in intrinsic interests, that is the finest way to learn, and remember anything. The thing to watch out for is assuming your child will be interested in the things you are interested in, especially when you might experience some vicarious pleasure in doing that activity. Always make sure your child loves it intrinsically. The other thing to watch out for is not scheduling your child’s entire free time. Overscheduling leads to burnout, and I have known such children who quit everything at once when they reached their mid-teens.
Family time as free play
Parents need to spend some time interacting with their children. They need time to bond over conversation and activities. If they can share in time spent chatting over tea, or skating, or playing board games, or making model railroads, or hiking, or knitting, or hanging out on the grass looking at the clouds, or discussing the news, or cooking, or playing the guitar…really, anything is a valid shared activity. Travel is especially good. This is where the variety in families is pronounced. In their togetherness, they gravitate towards certain activities, and as long as it allows for talking and sharing feelings, and learning, and gaining physical prowess or cultural finesse, then it is wonderful.