This Is The No-Bullshit Guide To Screen Time We’ve Been Waiting For

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Kinzie Riehm / Getty Images (Left) & Anya Kamenetz (Right)

Does it feel like your kids are pretty much always on some sort of screen? Are you wracked with guilt about it? Confused about “what counts” as screen time, and whether your kids’ screen time habits are permanently destroying their brains or their lives?

If that sounds like you, you are definitely not alone. These days, so much of our kids’ lives happen via a screen or electronic device of some kind. When we were kids, we mostly just heard our parents moan, “Turn off the TV, and do you your homework!”

But these days, many of our kids actually do their homework on a screen, so it can all get pretty confusing. And it’s not just school work or entertainment that happens on a screen of some kind. Our kids socialize via screens, read books on screens, and play interactive and educational games on them. Some kids use screens to exercise, meditate, and even record stories and make art. It’s a whole new world for us parents, and we have very little in the way of guidelines—or at least ones that really speak to us and actually address our realities and concerns.

Enter Anya Kamenetz. She’s a journalist, an expert on education and technology—and most importantly a mom of two young kids. Kamenetz wrote the recently released The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, which draws upon interviews with over 500 parents, as well as a whole slew of experts in the field. And let me tell you: her approach to screen time is just the realistic, no-bullshit take we have all been looking for.

Image via Anya Kamenetz

First of all, Kamenetz reveals the truth about how much screen time kids actually consume, and how early they start—and it’s not the typical sugar-coated, lying-liar answer so many of us provide just so we don’t look like awful parents.

Let’s start with how early kids start interacting with screens. Remember those guidelines put out by the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) a few years ago that said “no screens before age two?” Well, the AAP has since changed them to be bit more open-ended, and Kamenetz assures us that almost no parent follows a guideline remotely like that anyway. Nine out of 10 parents don’t wait that long, according to Kamenetz.

So if your baby or toddler has interacted with a screen before the age of two, you are definitely not alone (and not a terrible parent, either!).

And how about how long kids actually spend on screens per day? Kamenetz has answer for that too.

“One of the big issues here is that there is a gap between the average and what doctors think is healthy/optimal,” she told Scary Mommy. “It’s also tough to measure because increasingly we are living in a multiple and mobile device world–not to mention the looming gray area of things like AI toys and Alexa.”

Kamenetz says that, in the most recent Common Sense Media survey, parents report that their kids of ages 0-8 spend an average of 2 hours, 19 minutes a day on screen. But those are probably low estimates, with other studies estimating it to be more like 4 to 5 hours a day.

Four to five hours a day honestly sounds much more realistic to me, especially when you take into consideration all the non-entertainment screen time so many of our kids engage in (homework, reading, social media, etc.). And it’s pretty damn refreshing to see someone say that.

Ok, but there have to be limits, right? We definitely don’t want to raise kids who turn into absolute zombies, never engaging with people, nature, and never getting off their butts to exercise. Kamenetz definitely advocates a balanced approach to the whole thing. But she believes that we parents are usually able to detect when something becomes a problem, and that actually, these problems often present themselves pretty clearly in the first place.

Kamenetz points to some “red flags” to watch out for that signal your kid might be having an issue with screen time. “The biggest red flags are: sleep problems (which is linked to use at night and naptime) and obesity (which is linked more to watching videos than to using apps),” Kamenetz told Scary Mommy. “After that, a wide range of problems like aggression and anxiety and school performance/reading issues have been linked to media use, but there is more dispute in the research around that and the effects are generally smaller.”

Kids who have ADHD or are on the autism spectrum are more prone to these issues, Kamenetz explains. Another big warning sign is when your kid is “explosive” anytime you say that screen time is over, and that might be a sign that your child needs to cut back (ummm, yeah, I can relate to that).

But it’s not about some number of hours, or activities, or whatnot. It’s about what your eyes (and your gut) tell you. “You know your kid best and if something doesn’t seem right, there can seldom be harm in cutting back on screen time,” says Kamenetz.

Most of all, Kamenetz says that we all just need to be more real with each other about screen time, opening up honest conversations about it with other parents–and without judgment. Oh, and we could all get a little more real about our own screen time habits, too, which could almost always use a few tweaks.

“[T]ake a good hard look at your own use of technology and try to uphold the values you espouse as a parent. Kids watch what we do, not just what we say,” she reminds us.

And here’s one last nugget of wisdom for. Kamenetz says that generally screen time is made a whole lot healthier when we parents participate in it along with our kids, watching their shows, playing along with their video games, or learning apps. It’s easier said than done sometimes, but it’s definitely a goal that we should keep in mind.

Either way, Kamenetz wants us to drop the freaking guilt about the whole thing, embrace screen time for what it is, and try to do so in a balanced, healthy way. Her motto is: “Enjoy Screens! Not too much. Mostly together,” which is absolutely fantastic, and something that we can all keep in mind as we try to navigate the sometimes confusing, but actually pretty dang awesome world of screen time with our kids.

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