Screen time is often vilified in our parenting culture. Parents who let their kids have unlimited or lots of time on tablets or in front of the TV are deemed “lazy” or uninvolved. It’s a bit of a status symbol to some if you don’t even own a TV or if your child hasn’t ever played a video game. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommendations on how much (or little) screen time is good for kids; kids ages 2-5 aren’t meant to exceed an hour a day, and over age 6, they say to “limit” screens. For all kids, the AAP says, “Avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums.”
However, many parents exceed these recommendations and do use screens to entertain kids while they make dinner or, heaven forbid, shower. Some experts now say we should reframe how we use screen time to help reduce parental guilt and see if screen time can be a tool, rather than a villain.
Why screens are actually good for kids
At the end of a long, stressful day, do you ever zone out in front of the TV? You could be reading or doing chores, yes, but watching TV can calm you down and help you decompress. Kids feel the same way! “Screens can provide that sense of familiarity, and yes, that can be regulating,” says Ash Brandin, a middle school teacher and parenting and technology expert. “Kids may ask for screens on busy or even ‘fun’ days, like a day at the amusement park. Adults may interpret this as kids being ungrateful or obsessed with screens, but oftentimes kids are seeking regularity or familiarity on a busy day.”
This can be especially true for neurodivergent children. “For neurodivergent kids, in some cases being behind a screen can make some connections easier. There are places for every unique interest, and as long as you’ve done a little research and vetted the sites, older kids can engage with others over the internet in a way they never would in person,” says Jessica Beachkofsky, a psychiatrist and parent coach. “Some ND kids may find that screens pull them into something in a way that sustains attention and allows them to be focused, take the time to improve, and gain mastery over something that could provide a lot of practical applications in the future.” It’s not all violent video games and mindless TV programming.
Also keep in mind the many ways screens provide education and skills to our kids. We no longer have to “watch what’s on,” but can help curate a positive digital experience for our children. “Keeping age-appropriateness in mind, kids have access to digital books and audio books, music, videos that teach, academic prep like Khan Academy, and creative endeavors like with Canva, clips, or music creation apps,” Beachkofsky says. It’s also the golden age of television for children as well as adults, with many programs offering social emotional learning (SEL) skills and interesting information. Many apps teach mindfulness and SEL skills, as well, in addition to academic skills.
Why screens are helpful for parents
Parents can use screens, not as a “pacifier,” but as a way to help the household run more smoothly both practically and emotionally. Brandin says screens are “filling in systemic gaps our society has left unfilled.” They say, “lack of paid parental leave, affordable childcare, before or after school care, safe access to the outdoors, universal healthcare (which requires caregivers to work or work more to afford healthcare for their family) … create gaps when trying to care for kids.”
Currently, many households rely on one individual caregiver to keep the household running and to meet the children’s needs. Without help from something external, including screens, an adult in charge of everything at once all the time, “will just result in an adult who is so burnt out they can’t be present or regulated for their kid,” Brandin says. Instead, they suggest using screens temporarily as a way to get things done around the house, which “allows that adult to focus solely on the task at hand instead of being torn between dinner and their kids, so the adult can also regulate and decompress. Then when screen time is over, that adult is probably going to be more present and regulated for their kids. Everyone is benefitting from that.” Beachkofsky also says it’s OK to use short bursts of screen time to “just take a brain break so everyone can come back together feeling ready to engage again.” This use of screens can reduce resentment and may decrease the times you “lose it” around your kids due to being overwhelmed.
How to set good boundaries with screens
Using this method might seem like a pathway to unlimited screen time, but there are ways to walk the line between the right amount and too much screen time. Beachkofsky says it “may take some pretty regular tweaking to get it right,” but “once you get a sense of the length of time or types of activities or apps that make things better or worse, it’s easier to manage before it gets out of hand.”
One way to learn what’s best for your individual kid is to take notes of how often screens are the go-to regulation tool. “If we see our child always defaulting to a screen, it may be the only way (or the easiest way) for them to meet that need. That’s a chance for us to step in and offer other regulation strategies,” Brandin says. They say to transition out of too-much screen time to make it a practice to model regulation and then set clear boundaries. Instead of coming down hard and telling your kid “no more screens” or saying no to screens outright, they suggest you say, “screens aren’t available right now” or something like “right now it’s homework time. TV will be available at 4:30.” If your child balks at this suggestion or doesn’t get the task done ahead of time, say, “‘TV time will start once homework is done’ so they learn that the natural consequence of delaying homework is the activities afterward will be truncated,” they say.
Avoid using screens as a reward. “When we use screens as a reward, we are inadvertently making kids focus more on screens, not less,” Brandin says. For example, if a kid gets a screen if they do a chore or finish homework, they will learn that doing these tasks is only worth it for the reward. “We want (screens) to be just another part of our lives,” Brandin says. The hope is that your child has intrinsic motivation for doing other tasks, and if not, that they at least don’t associate their worth with a reward of screens.
Change the way you think about screens
Screens aren’t going anywhere. “The longer we vilify them, the more caregivers internalize the use of screens as a judgment on their parenting,” Brandin says. “That isn’t going to result in less screen time; it’s just going to result in caregivers who feel badly about their parenting and likely contribute to power struggles they have with their kids about screens.”
Judging yourself or other parents for their use of screens also “distracts from the systemic inequities that necessitate this use of screens, which is the actual root cause in my opinion,” Brandin says. Instead of criticizing screens say, “this works for our family,” and put your energy into enjoying your time with your children and attending to the many other demands on your life.