Screen Time Absolute Rules Aren't Working For Kids

We Can All Calm Down About Our Kids’ Screen Time––Even The Experts Agree

Boy using digital tablet on a sofa in living room
Scary Mommy and Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska/ Wavebreakmedia/ ilkercelik/Getty

If you have ever felt guilty about the amount of time your kid spends on screens, you know that you’re not alone. Sometimes it seems like screen time rules make up the majority of daily parenting decisions. Mom … can I watch YouTube? Can I play Roblox? Can I play Minecraft? I wanna look at TikTok! And the last thing parents need is all the “parenting gurus” telling us how terrible we are and how screen time is rotting our kids’ minds.

The pandemic really seemed to knock people off of their high horse when it comes to screen time because it forced many households to loosen the rules and be more flexible. Because frankly, those darn devices are really helpful when it comes to parents getting things done (like earning a paycheck to keep the lights on) without giving their undivided attention to their kids. Even the “parenting gurus” are finally admitting the truth about screen time: no, it isn’t creating permanent brain damage, and absolute rules aren’t practical in today’s parenting world.

In a Mother Jones’ article, University of Cambridge psychologist Amy Orben acknowledges that the whole screen-time guilt trip is actually based on shaky science. She admits that many studies on the adverse mental health effects of screen time rely on “iffy” recollections of how much screen time children are getting. She shares that experts told her that because of the incredible complexity of the cognitive process, studies using brain imaging are also vague and imprecise.

It probably won’t surprise you that panicking about kids’ exposure to new technology isn’t anything new. Orben shared that philosophers in ancient Greece claimed that the act of writing would make young people more rebellious. Eighteenth century parents worried their children could become addicted to reading. And a 1940s child-rearing magazine, when addressing children listening to the radio, stated, “It comes into our very homes and captures our children before our very eyes.”  

Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson, a child development expert, mom, and co-founder of a children’s media and technology company, shared with the New York Times, “Child development research will never occur at the speed of the technology. And we will default to fear-based decision making … So many people will take the approach of, if we don’t know for certain, then it’s bad and we should avoid it.” Dr. Russo Johnson further stated, “We have to stop looking at this as a black-and-white issue. You don’t want your kids always glued to screens. That is common sense,” she shared. “But these things are not evil. There is a lot of variety, and everything is not created equal.” 

Some parenting experts are pointing out that an anti-screen stance is a very privileged perspective to take. The truth is, for many parents, screen time is the safest way to occupy their kids while they try to balance work and other responsibilities. And, for sure, the pandemic made that a reality for so many parents — and that reality was a bit of a smack in the face. 

Anya Kamenetz, parenting expert and education blogger, actually apologized for such a stance in an article for the New York Times. She said, “I want to take this moment to apologize to anyone who faced similar constraints before the pandemic and felt judged or shamed by my, or anyone’s, implication that they weren’t good parents because they weren’t successfully enforcing a “healthy balance” with screens, either for themselves or their children. That was a fat honking wad of privilege speaking.” 

Child psychologist Michael Rich, who runs the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital shared with Mother Jones, “Screens are not inherently toxic. They’re neutral. It’s what we do with them that matters.” And Dr. Russo Johnson agrees and encourages parents to find a happier middle ground by asking, “How does this particular device or screen, tech or feature enhance or detract from the experience?” 

Kamenetz explains, “What I’ve come to realize with clarity in these dark, anxious times is that so many of our problems “with technology” don’t emanate from the screens that our children are glued to but from the disruption and alienation that creeps into our own relationships with ourselves and others.” Orben suggests that the antidote is connection. She explains, “You can fight with your kids about too much screen time. Or you can smoosh in next to them on the couch and ask, ‘Can I have a hug?'”

Now, no one is saying hand off the devices and give your kiddos limitless access to screen time. If you pay no attention to what your children do online or how long they are on a screen, they will find some bad corners of the internet. But you no longer have to beat yourself up every time you hand a device over to your kid so you can get some things done on your very long to-do list.