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How to Create Healthy (and Reasonable) Family Screen Time Habits

In 'The Art of Screen Time,' Anya Kamenetz navigates the difficult balance between digital media and family life.

Calling smartphones and screens a “growing problem” for America’s youth isn’t just sensationalist – it’s also far too late. Smart tech – be it a phone, TV, or watch – is almost guaranteed to play an omnipresent role in kids’ lives from the moment they’re born, whether it’s through a relative taking photos for social media or a parent handing over their iPad. And while many have been quick to declare a technological crisis for the emotional stability and attention spans of rising generations, Anya Kamenetz – an expert on education and technology, and a mother of two young kids – has taken a more practical approach to enforcing good screen time habits. 

In The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, available now from PublicAffairs, Kamenetz examines research and personal anecdotes to find balance between digital media and family life. In the below excerpt from her book, she argues why screens offer opportunities for parents to connect more with their kids.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Screen Time

I took my older daughter, Lulu, to see her first movie in the theater on a very rainy Saturday. She was three years old. Our pick was Inside Out, the rainbow-hued Pixar tale starring the warring, personified emotions inside one girl’s head. Red was the color of Anger, blue was Sadness, green was Disgust, purple was Fear, and glowing gold was Joy, in charge of it all.

I talked up the movie theater in advance as I do with most of Lulu’s new activities.

“It’s a very big screen,” I said.

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“We have a big screen here, Mama,” she said.

“Yes, well this one is even bigger! And you have to get there at a certain time … and you have to be quiet during the show … and you can’t get up too many times … and there are other people there … no, not our friends, just strangers…”

Wow, I thought. What on earth is the purpose of going out to a movie theater anymore?

But I love the movies. So does my husband, Adam. So did Lulu, from the start. She was captivated by every frame. She didn’t get scared at the scary parts or upset at the weepy parts. The movie showed a family just like ours at that time: a stressed-out, stubbly dad with a startup. An exhausted mom trying to keep everything together. And one dark blonde, goofball little girl.

Ever since then, we haven’t missed a kids’ movie in the theater.

Thus far, we’ve been dwelling on the scarier aspects of media and kids. Much of the research, as well as much of the media coverage of that research, is focused on risks and harms. There are good reasons that the conversation tilts this way. But one unfortunate result is that at this point, many parents – or at least the relatively affluent, anxious types who buy most parenting books – see their role as primarily being to restrict kids’ media use, or divert it to preferred forms of content. That’s not enough.

Nearly every media researcher I talked to was careful not to be painted as an anti-screen zealot (exceptions noted). They all mentioned that all the negative evidence on kids and media has a flip side. “The research is all over the map,” says Heather Kirkorian, director of the Cognitive Development and Media Lab at the University of Wisconsin, who casts herself as more “media positive and parent positive” than most researchers. “Some types of content are harmful, some have the potential to be beneficial.”

For one thing, she says, educational television really is educational. In several huge studies, watching Sesame Street has been found to be almost as good as attending preschool. Children ages three to five can effectively get ready for school by learning vocabulary, body parts, numbers, counting, letter sounds, and how to sound out words from viewing cute Muppets. This is good news, since a relatively small proportion of U.S. children have access to preschool.

And the benefits persist over time. “Children who watch Sesame Street are more ready to learn,” Kirkorian told me. “They get higher grades in English, math, and science in high school. They are more likely to participate in extracurriculars.”

In fact, she says, “The research suggests that preschool-aged children, three-plus, can learn all kinds of things from traditional TV: academic, prosocial, or antisocial.” This is yet another good reason to pay attention to the messages in the media your kids are watching.

A newer study by Eric Rasmussen has demonstrated that the PBS TV show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is designed to reinforce social and emotional lessons, can improve preschoolers’ empathy, confidence, and ability to recognize emotions – provided that parents are in the habit of discussing television content with their kids.

Research on the efficacy of educational media for young toddlers is a very new field. In the past decade and a half, studies by Kirkorian and others have shown that children are able to transfer knowledge, such as how to put together a toy, from television to real-world contexts by about age two – perhaps as early as fifteen months with extensive repetition.

But there’s more. Many clinicians have harnessed the compelling power of video games for therapeutic purposes. In fact, purpose-built games, simulations, and other software applications can ameliorate some of the problems that are made worse by conventional games and software.

Fast-paced video games have been shown to improve reading speed in dyslexic children. They work as well as or even better than much more difficult, and less enjoyable, traditional reading drills and exercises.

Even if there weren’t so many examples of positive applications of technology, limiting and monitoring would be an inadequate response. We live, and are raising our children, in a digital media-saturated reality that we have created and that we choose every day. “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral,” in the famous words of historian Melvin Kranzberg. As parents, I believe it’s our job to enhance the good for our kids even as we try to mitigate the bad, and more than that, to remain open to learning what our children’s media interests have to teach us.

Let’s assume for a minute that you’re not currently facing some big waving red flags to cut back on your kids’ media use, like unhealthy weight gain, poor sleep, attention, or learning or behavior problems.

It’s time to brighten the screen a little bit. When do screens bring us and our children together? Have you experienced moments of joy, laughter, excitement, discovery, creation, or connection on the couch or across great distances? When it comes to families and media, the potential is at least as dazzling as the dangers are dark.

I want to suggest an approach to parenting with media, not just against it. One that emphasizes these positives as a means of driving out the negatives. To return to the healthy-diet metaphor, we have some idea what excessive consumption looks like, what kinds of ingredients are toxic, and the symptoms of dangerous allergies. But what is the media equivalent of the family dinner prepared with farmer’s market veggies? What about the backyard barbecue with watermelon and s’mores?

Research on parental mediation shows that when parents get involved with their kids’ technology use, risks go way down, and positive effects go up. “I think parents vastly underestimate their influence,” says Erica Austin at Washington State University, who has been researching parental mediation of media for almost thirty years.

Children’s imaginations fall hungrily on any available fodder and build castles in the sky, or on the screen, to suit. When parents enter into that world with them – or simply supply an audience – magic can happen.

In my anecdotal experience, fathers are particularly natural at positive media parenting. First, there are the stereotypes of men as the geekier sex, whether that means my friend who spends hours drawing superheroes with his son, or my husband who is eager to download the latest music app for Lulu. Another piece of it may be that Western culture tends to assign fathers the role of playmate, especially one who engages in riskier activities like rough-and-tumble play, which leaves mothers as the enforcers of rules and of safety. But moms, dads, and other concerned adults all have essential roles to play as media mediators.

Evidence-based media strategies for parents go beyond setting limits on time, place, and occasion. They start off with a stronger hand in the early years and gradually step back, helping kids build their own individual strategies of healthy use.

They include, fundamentally, participating with your kid. Just as healthy eating habits start around the family dinner table, joint media engagement starting in the earliest years basically means treating an app or video like a picture book: sitting with a kid on your lap, naming objects, talking about what’s happening, and asking questions. It means actively and consciously modeling the use of media for communications, learning, and creation.

They include the understanding that different kinds of content and patterns of use are appropriate for different contexts. That the stuff out there varies from extremely fun and hilarious, truly educational and culturally enriching, open-ended and imaginative, to violent, excessively commercialized, or just crummy. That our needs vary too: to create, to connect, to get things done, to answer questions, and sometimes to just check out and take a break – both adult and child. And tastes and priorities in all of the above may vary from family to family.

They include balancing screen time with nonscreen activities like, say, playing actively, cooking, crafts, or gardening. And sometimes, finding balance by extending screen time into all of the above – turning it into “screens on the side” time.

They include – and can inform – a more mindful approach to our own media use.

Later on, say the researchers at the forefront of promoting this vision, it means treating our children’s media and tech interests like any other interests in their lives: supporting, encouraging, listening, and helping build bridges between current passions and future opportunities.

Screen time doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. It can be one of the best ways to connect with your kids.

Anya Kamenetz’s The Art of Screen Time is published by PublicAffairs and is available at book retailers everywhere.