How much screen time should children have? Does it matter what kind of screen? And what about what they’re doing on them: watching Daniel Tiger, or obnoxious YouTube videos about a barfing Elsa Barbie? If young kids spend hours watching stuff on screens, will their brains turn to mush? Does letting your kids watch SpongeBob Square Pants on your iPad while you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment make you a bad parent?
People have all kinds of questions about such things, but while TVs have been around for many years, the most ubiquitous modern screens are too new to have generated much data. And so as with many new matters, people resort to suspicion, hyperbole, and that eternally alluring pastime of mother-shaming.
Journalist Anya Kamenetz was hoping to find some helpful answers as she dealt with her own family’s screen time rules. She couldn’t find any non-histrionic compilations of the research, so she decided to write a book. The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life is out this week, and comes to a conclusion about how families should use screens that’s something akin to Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.” Kamenetz agreed to answer a few questions for this blog:
LV: You’ve covered lots of different topics: education, finances. Why did you want to write this book?
AK: I went to lunch with my editor and said, I want to write a book that I myself really need to read. And I took out my Kindle app on my phone then and there and realized that so many of the nonfiction books I read these days are about parenting. So then the question was, what parenting book do you wish were out there, but it isn’t yet?
LV: What are the biggest misconceptions out there about kids and screens?
AK: I think that they are some kind of silent killer, like radon gas seeping into your home, and that every minute of exposure adds up to what one friend of mine called his “bad-dad debt.” In reality, most children are quite resilient, which is good because digital media is all but ubiquitous. And while there are real risks that come with too much screen time, it tends to produce effects that are easily observed by attentive parents. I want parents to incorporate the evidence in this book with their own common sense to arrive at a balance that works.
LV: Did any of your household rules evolve as a result of your research? And how do you see these changing as your kids get older?
AK: In the course of researching and writing this book we went from one to two children, and the older one went from almost four to six. So of course the rules are evolving all the time. Our cardinal household rule is that TV and movies happen only on Saturdays (plus sick days, vacation, and travel) and I hope to continue that for some time, but as they get older we will need to make rules more collaboratively. I think the two biggest things I try to be vigilant about is no screens close to bedtime and devices out of the bedrooms–that goes for me too!
LV: There appears to be a reasonable amount of parent-shaming — usually aimed at mothers — about kids and screens. Why is this?
AK: I am so happy you asked me about this! First of all, parent-shaming, especially mom-shaming, is a great American pastime on all kinds of topics. When it comes to screen time, technology and thus social mores are changing quickly, in a way that can be startling to observe. Older generations may be judging the decisions of newer parents because everything looks so different than it did just ten years ago. Without good guidance or etiquette I think even the most confident among us feel a little unmoored, and casting aspersions on another parent’s choice may be a way to temporarily address that insecurity. I saw that tendency in the families I interviewed.
Finally, you can’t ignore the class aspects of this parent-shaming. Studies show that kids whose parents make less money are spending more time with electronics, and there are so many reasons : because their parents work longer and unpredictable schedules, they may not have access to high quality childcare and afterschool programs, their neighborhoods aren’t safe to play outside, to name a few.
LV: You suggest that enjoying screens together as a family can be a good way to incorporate them into modern family life. How should we go about doing that?
AK: Whether your kids are preschoolers or teenagers, they need your help to mediate the media they are taking in. The short answer is to find a mutual interest you can connect over, whether that be playing a music video and dancing along, or composing video messages to send to family and friends, or having a family movie night, or having your kid teach you their latest video game obsession, or show you how to use filters on Snapchat, or look up Youtube tutorials for a recipe or a craft you’d like to make together, or geek out on a Wikipedia deep dive … the possibilities are endless.
In other news: Thanks so much to everyone who posted comments (or emailed me) on how they first found me! It’s been quite enlightening. Lots to think about as I ponder how to reach other people who might someday be part of this awesome comments section.
In other other news: I’m just back from a long weekend in Mont Tremblant, about 90 minutes outside Montreal. I managed to get in the outdoor hot tub (3 times! Twice with kids, once without), enjoying the exquisite contrast of a very warm body and a very cold nose. So I can cross that off my post-holiday winter fun/survival list. Now I just need to get to that basketball game…
And finally: If my math is right, the running streak just crossed the 400-day mark today.