Almost Fearless

Let’s Get Real About Screen Time



When I was a kid, we had one channel on TV. When I was 13 years old, cable finally made it to our rural New England town and I gorged on HBO, Cinemax and the Disney Channel. I remember staying up until the wee hours of the morning watching back to back episodes of Tales from the Crypt and every movie that HBO had in their repertoire (I must have watched the movie Big a dozen times that summer).

Now, with three children aged from 7 years old to 8 months, I think about that transition in terms of our technology now. Can you really restrict screen time or are you just postponing it? Will these children spend their first years of college, free from parental restrictions, gorging on hours of content like I did?

Sally Thelen is a teacher in Michigan and she’s seen how students translate their parents’ oversight into the responsibility of their educators, “This is a huge issue in higher education right now. I teach pre-matriculated university age international students, and last week some students complained to our administration that some teachers weren’t policing students enough to get off their cell phones.”

“I was actually pretty shocked that the students seemed to think that this was primarily the instructor’s responsibility. I’m of the mind that they are adults and have the right to make their own decisions regarding their behavior in class. Plus, they need to get used to self-regulating if they want to be successful at the university, so my reminding them to get off their phones doesn’t really help them do that.”

Our generation grew up offline or with pitiful dial-up internet and GeoCities websites. Our children will enter adulthood with full access to streaming content, year’s worth of threads on Reddit to catch up on, decades of video games and enough apps to keep them swiping left or right for the rest of their lives. The world expects them to be able to handle that by the age of 18. Will they be ready?

Most likely not, because for this generation, the question of screen time has been rolled into the debate about time outdoors. In our over-scheduled lives, any time spent on a device means stealing directly from the small window of play time afforded American kids. A National Trust survey in 2016 found that children today spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents, less than half an hour a day. Yet 96% of the parents who responded would prefer that their children spend more time outdoors.

Yet the two things are not necessarily connected. In my home we manage to do a little bit of everything: unrestricted screen time, homeschooling and time outdoors. So what does “unlimited screen time” in our home look like?

Saying “yes” is a lifestyle choice

We don’t just say yes to screen time, we say yes to everything. What does that mean? We try to think of reasons why it’s okay first, then if we can’t do that, we try to find some version of yes. “Yes, you can have cake for breakfast,” (I’ll just secretly make sure I make a plate of cut up veggies in the afternoon and leave them out). Or “Yes, I really want you to be able to jump off that swing set, but how about we practice jumping off this smaller structure first?” In short, I work with my kids to find a way. I am on their side. I always go to bat for them. Because of this, they trust me. I never restrict things without a good reason, so when I do, they don’t whine, instead they ask why, then generally accept my reasoning.

Redefine Screen Time

Even the American Association of Pediatricians has changed their stance from a blanket two hours per day, to defining the difference between educational and entertainment screen time.

They note, “Well-designed television programs, such as Sesame Street, can improve cognitive, literacy, and social outcomes for children 3 to 5 years of age.”

Well of course! We homeschool, so I’m not going to count the time my children are practicing Spanish or reading books or solving math problems as “screen time.”

The AAP has developed an approach that is more practical. On their Family Media Plan page they make it clear the shift in priorities, “Media should work for you & work within your family values & parenting style. When media is used thoughtfully & appropriately, media can enhance daily life. But when used inappropriately or without thought, media can displace many important activities such as face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-play, exercise, unplugged downtime and sleep.”

Model Good Screen Habits

My husband and I put our devices away when we’re eating dinner. We don’t watch TV. We use computers, tablets and phones as tools, and yes we’re on them a lot for our work, but we’re also okay not touching them at all. We don’t self-medicate with TV at the end of the day, we spend that time unwinding with our kids, and usually telling stories, reading or playing as everyone gets ready for bed.

Play Games with Your Kids

I’ve learned how to play Minecraft, Terraria and Spore with my seven year old. The other day, he called me over to log into this server because he had built me a castle, placed several chests full of supplies and wanted me to help him explore the world with him. Just like reading a book together, it felt like quality time spent talking, strategizing and working together to achieve common goals in a world my child built and designed.

Too Much Screen Time = Your Kids Are Bored

If I see my daughter watching those toy unboxing videos on YouTube, I know we need an intervention. But instead of saying, “Okay, no more iPads,” I try to figure out a way to be fun and interesting. “Let’s go swimming!” almost always works in my house, but my kids are big fans of any kind of adventure. Now, they’re saying it to me: “Mom, let’s go explore!” I don’t limit their screen time, I make sure they always have better options available.

Your Mileage May Vary

I asked my friends about their household rules and I heard from parents who are doing everything from zero restrictions (and hating it) to navigating an almost completely tech-free life (and loving it).

My friend Mary cut it to down to a simple truth, “The biggest issue with self-regulation is that it is actually much more emotional labor for the parents than quick and simple rules.”

There are a lot of projects we can take on as parents. Maybe that’s raising children who play sports or are into music or can speak more than one language. Some families are all about the outdoors, others are about travel, some are big into academics. Just because you can take on a project like “unlimited screen time” and spend the time and effort to make it a healthy choice, doesn’t mean that it’s a priority for your family. In the end, we end up making parenting choices not purely on the science but on what kind of lifestyle we want to have, what we personally prioritize and whatever feels right at the time. And that’s okay.

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Christine Gilbert

Christine Gilbert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Almost Fearless. She's a long time traveler, expat and adventurer who is finding her way home to Colorado after nine years on the road. She's one of National Geographic's Travelers of the Year (2014) and author of the book MOTHER TONGUE (2016, Penguin Random House). She has three children: Cole, Stella + Tallulah.

2 comments

  • Screen time seems to ebb and flow with our kids, depending on our constant change in living situations while traveling. My perspective is not to worry so much on the daily activity, but the bigger picture. Much like our kids food diet. If all the kid wants to eat for lunch is pickles, its not a big deal because that isn’t what they eat for lunch all year long. They’ll get plenty of variety throughout the year, both in their diet and activities. Don’t stress about individual days.