The Art of Screen Time: Q&A with Anya Kamenetz

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.

12 thoughts on “The Art of Screen Time: Q&A with Anya Kamenetz

  1. Hi Laura,

    I missed the ask to note where I found your blog. If I recall correctly, it was from a link on Penelope Trunk’s blog – I looked at the linked post, and plugged your blog into my RSS reader (antiquated, I know!)

    Keep up the good work! Antonia (London, UK)

  2. I found your blog when I read I Know How She Does It; I was about to have my second baby and I was freaking out, and your book and blog gave me some peace of mind 🙂

    On screen time, I really love Anya Kamenetz’s approach to this topic! My kids are toddlers, so the idea of a “mutual interest” is a little bit removed for us as yet, but we’ve found that our kids have more fun watching TV if we’re engaged in the program, too. Not that I am genuinely interested in Super Why, but sometimes Mommy needs a little break on the couch. The parent-shaming issue is so real, though–thanks for bringing that up! We could all afford to be a little more generous with each other 🙂

    1. @Robin – agreed. Kids are awesome. They also require a lot of energy. Caregivers need some downtime.

      My thought: anyone who’s actually thinking conscientiously about the idea of screen time is probably not overdoing it. This fits in with my general thesis that parenting books could all be blank. If you’re buying a parenting book, your kids are going to be fine.

  3. I am interested in potentially reading this book, but does she go into the issues of older children at all? Mine are 11 and 14, and we’re way past Daniel Tiger. Thematically the advice is similar, I realize, but still.

    1. @Tarah – she covers older children some – probably less than younger just because her own are younger. She does note the very good point that on a great many dimensions, teenagers are doing better now than in the recent past. Teen pregnancies are down, teen violence and crime is way down. Given that screens are ubiquitous, if they were incredibly negative (like the radon analogy) we’d be seeing a lot more systematic ill effects. We’re not.

  4. Definitely adding this to my list as it’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m pretty sure that screen time makes my 5yo more cranky *after* she’s done with it, so we’re trying to decide if it’s worth the ‘electronic babysitter’ or not 😉 We have also noticed it takes them forever to settle down to sleep if they have screen time too close to bedtime (just like adults) so we’ve been cutting it off at 5pm and that works well. And we also restrict passive screen time to Fri night through Sunday afternoon – generally we let the device battery decide how long they have it ;D

    1. My 5 year old son would also get cranky/upset once TV time was over. We told him that his behavior once TV time was over made us not want to let him watch at all, since it was so unpleasant when it was over. This has worked remarkably well- 9 times out of 10 he turns off the TV himself almost immediately after being asked. Magic!

      His TV watching at home typically consists of Saturday morning cartoons (so us parents can mercifully sleep in!), a family movie night on Friday or on the weekend, and *sometimes* an episode of Odd Squad on Thursday nights as a reward for completing piano practice/lesson for the week.

      1. This is our problem too—the 6 year old gets super cranky after we turn off the screen, no matter how much time he got on it. 8 year old is OK—I don’t think its the age, its the persoanality, they have always been like that!

        1. Our two are like this as well – the younger one has always been cranky after screen time and the older one is fine and gives it up easily. Definitely a personality/temperament thing for us.

          We have had the same conversation as @CNM re: behavior being worse with the 5yo but she is not motivated enough (or self-regulating enough) to change her behavior in this scenario. Sad.

  5. How did I first find you? I picked up the monthly copy of Book Page at the library in the summer of 2010 and found a recommendation for 168 Hours. Loved it! I can’t believe it has been nearly eight years.

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