Screentime: It’s not as simple as good or bad

I have always grappled with screen time as if it was an epic battle with two opposing forces– good and evil. I led the crusade against my many opponents: my daughters, my step-children, my parents, and, over the years, two different husbands.  There is no doubt, though, that the most formidable opponent I faced was myself. For years my kids rode the waves of my erratic screen time policies based on how much pressure I was putting on myself to be a “good mother”. Actually, if you want to know the truth, I was trying to be the best mother that ever lived. As an early childhood educator turned stay at home mom, it felt vitally important to get the raising of my girls right.  I thought constantly about how, when, and what kind of media my two young daughters should be consuming. Without fully realizing it, I adopted the belief that allowing screen time was “bad.” As in, letting my 20 month old go zombie-eyed watching Dora the Explorer as I muddled through the day with a newborn made me a bad mom. Making it through a summer day in Phoenix with two children under three and no screen time at all made me a good mom. I managed to keep this level of angst alive for years.  Same story, different details: “Switch off Sunday” with my daughters and their new step-siblings cooking pancakes and having an impromptu drum circle equaled “good parenting”. Friday evenings when all 4 kids were with us and bug-eyed on four different screens equaled “bad parenting”.  

I see the same angst in the eyes of some of the parents in the toddler class I teach. “I let her watch so much Paw Patrol this morning. I know that’s terrible… it IS terrible, right?” They aren’t asking rhetorical questions; they stare at me with puppy-dog eyes until I give them an answer! I tell them what I wish I would have told myself when my children were younger: Screen time is not as simple as good or bad, right or wrong, Harvard-bound or living in the basement forever.  The answer to what is best when it comes to screen time is, in reality, nuanced and unique to each family’s circumstances. Complicating things even further is the fact that the world we live in is increasingly technology driven, and the landscape is changing faster than parents can keep up with, or developmental researchers can study.

So, our best path forward is to head in the direction the research points us, and meld that with the age, temperaments of our children, family circumstances. Next, make a plan, be consistent yet flexible, and most of all, look at screen time as one part of parenting, not a litmus test for mother or father of the year. This might sound easier said than done! Given the fact that we are halfway through the summer, aka the all you can eat buffet of screen-time, let’s unpack this further so we can get back to the rest of the summer without the sheepish grins and guilt that so often accompany the Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol binges.

Screen time can and does elicit strong feelings and opinions from everyone and their mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, and friends.  My mom (also a former preschool teacher who wrote her PhD thesis in the late 80’s on “Meta-cognitive development of young children and computer use”) bought every single Baby Einstein video in the series and informed me that when she babysat the girls they would have as much screen time as they wanted.  My best friend was a yoga teacher from Switzerland. She had a strict no screens policy and an easel in the kitchen so her boys could paint while she made vegan dinners. My (ex) husband acted judge-y when he came home from work and the girls were watching a video, yet seemed to have no problem putting said video on when it was time for my Saturday morning yoga class and he was on duty.  Likely, you have similar divergent opinions in your own life.

Let’s start by turning to the research.

The American Association of Pediatrics (2016) and the World Health Organization (2019) have both issued position statements advising against screen time use for children under two years old, with the exception of occasional video-chatting with long distance family and friends. For children two to five, no more than one hour per day is recommended.  Ummm, ok, so does that mean that the yoga teacher best friend is “right”? Is everything wrong with my children my mom’s fault for all those Baby Einstein videos? Why are these guidelines so stringent?

One reason is that based on research done by developmental psychologists, children under the age of 12 months are not learning from screens.  Researchers tracked whether babies less than a year were able to repeat an action 24 hours after seeing it performed on a video.  They couldn’t– not as well as the babies who learned from an adult interacting directly with them. In another study out of The University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University, researchers looked at whether children aged 12-15 months old were able to learn new vocabulary from watching a Baby Einstein video.  Again, the results were lackluster (sorry, Mom!). The children who watched did not learn more words than the children who did not watch the videos. A closer examination of the research that led to the AAP and WHO recommendations reveals that these limits are really about making sure our children have plenty of time in the day to do “all the things”–move, play, talk, explore, and interact with the people in their lives. Links between our children being sedentary and an increased risk of obesity have a huge impact on these recommendations as well.  Essentially, since babies and toddlers are not actually learning from their screen time, parents are told to hold off until they are a little older.

No matter what your personal reaction is to these guidelines, it is interesting to note that a 2017 survey conducted by Common Sense Media found that parents report around that in reality, children under two years old are on screens an average of 42 minutes per day, and children two to four years old watch or interact with screens about 2:39 hours per day.

This tells us that despite the guidelines, in general most children are engaging in more screen time than is recommended on a regular basis. That brings us to the next set of questions we need the research to help us with. Does the quality of the content make a difference? When kids move into their third year of life, THEN is there anything to be gained besides a moment of peace for a parent?


We know screens are often used as electronic babysitters for preschoolers.   But can they be teachers, too?

A longitudinal study conducted by researchers Gerry Ann Bogatz and Samuel Ball looked at children aged 3 to 5 who were exposed to Sesame Street vs. those who did not have access to the program. They found that children who watched Sesame Street scored higher on measures of school readiness, including showing improvement in their vocabulary. They also retained their advantage over time by being less likely to be held back in school.

While this does point to some educational value inherent in high quality screen time, studies and data are quite limited, and mostly based on the viewing of TV and videos.  And, in reality, our children’s media consumption takes many forms. However, we can still use the following take-aways to get us moving in the right direction.

  1. Limit media use for children under 2 years of age, with the exception of occasional video chats with family and friends.
  2. For children ages 2-5, limit media use to one hour per day or less.
  3. The amount of screen time toddlers participate in is associated with sedentary behavior and lower social skills.
  4. Children aged 3-5 are able to learn new vocabulary and other school readiness skills from high quality educational programming, so what they are watching does matter.

The next step is to translate these findings into an actionable plan that can put our minds at ease and makes sense for our full, busy lives—whatever that looks like for your family. I’ve already confessed that I am a long-term screen time worry wart. I learned a lot through our roller coaster of trial and error. Here are the top tips learned along the way.

Proper preparation: Spend some time thinking through what you would like the media use to look like in your household. The approach of hashing out the details of technology use in a screen time “agreement” is popular among parents of tweens and teens. The agreement formalizes your family’s screen-time policies by explicitly spelling them out in a written document. The preschool teacher in me loves this approach for younger families, too.

For example, the current agreement I have with my teenagers includes “We do not use our phones at the dinner table”, and “Phones go in the cup holder while we are in the car”. Your agreement might state “ We watch one episode of Daniel Tiger before dinner” or “We use ipads on the airplane.  We do not use ipads in the car.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has a great online tool for helping formulate your plan.

Give yourself permission to say yes: While I have heard that there are children who play quietly at their parent’s feet while Mom or Dad makes dinner, I have yet to encounter these children in my own life or in any of the families I have worked with.  Still, we all tend to feel bad when we use screens to occupy the kids while we get things done. Emily Oster, an economist and the author of Crib Sheet: a data-driven guide to better, more relaxed parenting, from birth to preschool, brings the economic idea of “opportunity cost of time” (if a child is on a screen, they are not doing something else) to the discussion in a very realistic way. She points out that of course our children could be doing something more creative, active, or educational then watching an hour of tv while you cook dinner and unload the dishes.  In reality, there is a good chance they can’t do this independently during the witching hour without you actually turning into a yelling, impatient witch.  In this case, the kids are most likely better off watching some tv followed by a peaceful family dinner!

One for One: With a limited number of waking hours, there is only so much time in the day for children to do all the things that truly help them grow and thrive.  If we look again at the opportunity cost of time, we see that more screen time equals less time playing outside, reading or being read to, engaging in open-ended play, and interacting with the loving adults in their lives. Consider adopting a one for one approach—for each “yes” you give to one more episode, make a point to read one more book after dinner, one more lego building session, or one more family walk around the block. It’s not an exact science but it could make you feel better about your decision!

Co-watch: Whenever you can, watch along with your children!  Research published in the journal Developmental Psychology shows that an adult watching and interacting with them during screen-time can help children learn better from what they are seeing. Watching shows with your children also gives you an opportunity to discuss a variety of topics that can be hard to bring up in the abstract—the situations that characters encounter can be a great jumping off point for you and your child to discuss experiences and feelings.

This too shall pass: When our children are growing up, everything changes so quickly. The perfect family media plan you come up with will likely run its course sooner or later due to any number of factors, including your children growing older.  They will naturally want and need different things, so treat it as a living document. You can be consistent when the plan is in place, and still reassess and evolve when needed.

Ask for help if you need it: Navigating all of this is not easy, and you don’t have to do it alone. It’s ok to ask your partner to tag in if you feel your resolve slipping away and you’re about to say yes when you really want to say no. It’s ok to be confused and not know exactly how to handle each new age and stage of screen-time.  Setting aside some calm, kid-free time to talk things through with your partner can be a huge help. So can the coaches at Trustle, who are there to help you figure out how YOU want to handle screen-time and have the confidence to put it into action.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea that screen-time isn’t simply a tug of war between good and bad, but it sure feels good to have dropped the rope.


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