Parents should take a much more nuanced approach to managing screen time. There’s a wildly diverse array of activities that include screens each with their own benefits and drawbacks. Never-the-less parents are routinely cautioned to keep screen time-limited, whether it is linked to playing video games or watching Netflix, lest their children become anti-social, obese indoor kids. But the truth is, playing video games is not the same as passively watching television. Many video games are great for kids and should be considered on their own merits, rather than as part of the grand screen time struggle.
It makes sense that parents would think this way. Rules about screen time have been monolithic. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines, for example, recommends only limited co-viewing of “high-quality programming” for children between 18 and 24-months-old. They further recommend limiting screen time to 1-hour per day for children over 2-years-old.
The guidelines aren’t terribly specific about what high quality programming means and aside from video chatting with extended family (which is encouraged), they fail to account for types of screen interaction. But even so, the AAP hints at a meaningful distinction between active and passive screen time.
Quietly consuming content is different from actively engaging with the screen — and perhaps the world beyond it. There’s a huge difference in experience between a child binging the latest streaming kids show and one who is building a whole world in Minecraft, for instance. Parents can use this difference to hone screen time rules to make them more reasonable for both child and adult.
It might help parents to consider screen-time quality on an engagement continuum. On the “least good” side sits unengaged consumption. On the “most-good” side, full-body interactive engagement. So a child left on their own for a Netflix binge isn’t as good as simply turning on the subtitles, which forces them to pay attention to language in context too. Even better is watching programs with children and engaging with them about plot points and character feelings. Better still is interactive content like multi-player action video games, which are less good than video games that require choices, building and coding, which are nearly as good as video games that require full-body movement.
There is science to back up the idea of placing screen time on a spectrum. In 2017, researchers from the University of Rochester and Brock University examined scientific literature that framed video game use through the lens of social determination theory or SDT. As a cornerstone of the psychology of motivation, SDT suggests that well-being is increased when people engage in activities that promote competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Researchers found numerous studies that showed benefits of video games based on social determination, concluding, “The studies supported the hypothesis that video game players may experience enhanced autonomy while playing if they feel free to choose and carry out activities that interest them, competence if they feel capable and effective at overcoming the game’s challenges, and relatedness if when playing games with others, they feel close and connected to the other players.”
One game researchers pointed out as exemplary to the theory was the mobile game Pokémon Go. Not only does the game boost autonomy as a player decides where to look and capture Pokémon, it connects users who share the Pokémon experience while increasing a sense of competence through honing pocket-monster management and battling skills. But perhaps best of all, the game requires activity, inspiring outdoor exploration and exercise — a tremendous benefit, screen mediated as it might be.
So, for parents, it might make sense to send a child out to play Pokémon Go for over an hour, or allow extra time to engineer and explore in Minecraft. It might even make sense to loosen restrictions on cooperative games like Rocket League or Fortnite.
Better still, parents should consider taking time to play with children in these digital worlds. Children who are enthusiastic about a game are more than happy to offer their knowledge to a parent and share insights. That kind of communication is often rare between parents and children but it’s valuable for connection and relationship building.
There’s another benefit for parents who take a more nuanced approach to screen time management: It gives them less to worry about. It’s unlikely that screens will become less prevalent in our day to day lives. So it’s time we come to a new understanding. Screens will not be our children’s downfall. And in fact, considered with engagement in mind, parents can release some of the anxiety and fear, particularly when it comes to video games. They can stop nagging, start encouraging, and maybe even find a new and enriching outlet to connect with the children they love.