If parents worried about too much screen time for kids and teens before the pandemic, we all know that the questions have increased.
If my child is doing distance learning all day, is that too much screen time?
Should I limit their screen use outside of school?
What is the appropriate amount of screen time for a child of a certain age?
There is no parenting handbook for this. We can’t simply do what our parents did, because it’s a whole new world.
It was already a whole new world before COVID-19 hit, because our parents barely had to figure out what to do with one computer in the house. Most of our kids probably have multiple devices in their bedrooms.
What’s a conscientious parent to do?
I figure we’re in this together, so let’s write the chapter in the parenting handbook called Screen Time During Virtual Learning and a Pandemic.
We can do this together.
Screen Time for Teens and Tweens
Can’t see the video? View it on YouTube here.
Will My Child Get Addicted to Screens?
I know that social media on my own phone is bad for my focus and productivity.
The later into the day it gets, the worse decisions I make. Sometimes I just feel “scroll-y.” (I think I can create that new word, don’t you?)
You know the feeling: where you just want to scroll and keep scrolling and see what else Facebook or Instagram might tell you that will change your life for the better! 😉
Then there’s that binge-y temptation of Netflix or YouTube.
And for kids who like video games, no one ever wants to turn them off, do they?
In fact, we know that the creators of social media and video games specifically use brain science to make them feel more addicting. To make us stay on their platforms longer.
The question isn’t whether we spend too much time on screens. The question really is, is it helpful, harmful, or neutral?
The answer in my experience is my least favorite answer ever: it depends. It can be all three.
Good News: Screen Time Isn’t All about Minutes or Hours.
When my children were small, limiting screen time was fairly easy.
I stuck with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for little to no screen time under two and then one hour a day, total screen time (TV, computer, tablet included) after that.
As my children have gotten older screen time becomes more nuanced.
As soon as our oldest, Paul, got into sixth grade, he had quite a bit of homework on a screen. I began to grapple with the question, does schoolwork count toward screen time? What is an appropriate limit for a 12-year-old?
Now that he’s a teenager, he has even more to do on screens, and it’s all the more complicated.
Is there an appropriate screen-time limit for a teenager?
Before COVID made distance learning a daily reality, teens spent an average of 7 hours on screens outside schoolwork! 😮
Now with virtual schooling, some kids are required to be on a computer three to six hours a day before they ever have a chance to recreate.
The good news is this: in the last year or two, some studies have begun to come out that show it is not the quantity of screen time that necessarily negatively impacts our brains. It’s how we use those screens, the quality of our screen time.
What I was feeling in my gut, that older kids don’t need a specific limit on minutes or hours, was turning out to have some science behind it.
Recommended Screen Time During Distance Learning
For obvious reasons in the last few months, media, parenting experts, and researchers have been discussing how parents should deal with screen time and virtual learning.
Many are saying not to worry at all about the number of hours on screens.
Many are also saying that once a child is finished with school, they should get their behinds outside, get some movement, and pretty much do anything other than be on screens.
In the Kimball household, for our younger kids, we’ve always had a “no screen time on school days” rule that grew out of our experience watching the boys use part of their hour-and-a-half of playtime after school for screens.
By the time they had a snack, set up the screen, set a timer for half an hour, and played, they basically had very little time left to do outdoor activities or anything else with their buddies from the neighborhood.
We saw their behavior whenever they had to get off the screen and the whining about getting on the screens as a roadblock to their best development.
So even in virtual learning, that rule remains the same: No recreational screen time on school days for elementary kids.
Tweens and Teens: Shifting Screen Time Limits to Balanced Usage Purposes
As my oldest moved through middle school, we began to be intentional about writing that chapter in the parenting handbook on tech usage for teens.
Paul, his dad, and I had conversations, not about how long he was on screens, but about how he was using his tech time.
When I think about my own screen usage, I can easily see that social media and watching videos have an addictive tendency. Obvious.
Social media has the built-in “make you want to keep scrolling” feature. So temptations abound.
However, as a Type A Perfectionist, I even feel that addictive pull even when I’m on the computer for work.
But obviously, I’m grateful for technology.
It’s allowed me to build a business from my home.
It’s allowed me to reach thousands of people teaching kids to cook with our Kids Cook Real Food™ eCourse.
It allows me to stay in better contact with high-school classmates than I ever would have in other eras in history.
I feel great about myself when I’m productive on my computer.
I feel relaxed at the end of the day when my husband and I sit down to watch a show after we’ve mostly obliterated the necessary to-do list items.
And I enjoy social media (when I’m not feeling guilty about ignoring my kids because I got sucked into some Instagram stories).
Because my kids are in process of growing from children into adults, I looked at my adult use of technology, compared it to what my teen was currently using tech for, and I created three general categories of technology use.
Each of these has their positive and negative aspects.
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Tech Time Usage Categories: Your Playlist
Our three category “buckets” for tech use are:
We began to talk to Paul about how he used his screens for each of these purposes.
None of them are completely positive or negative, but always nuanced.
This is why parenting is so hard!
Amen, moms and dads?
Our conversations centered around avoiding the temptation to addictive tendencies and striking a balance.
When you’re on a screen for three hours, and it’s all completely consumptive — in other words, entertainment, where you’re not really involved, but the content is coming at you out of the screen — maybe that’s too long.
Tech Entertainment: Consumptive
In our family, the quarantine in spring 2020 forced us to have some necessary conversations about technology time. We had a 14-year-old kid with about an hour of homework each day, no friends to play with in person, and excessive time in his room.
He was tending toward screens, and I was pretty sure after a few weeks that his consumptive time was very unbalanced with the other two.
What’s the difference between consumptive technology use and creative technology use?
In consumptive tech, we are the subject. We are more passive, and we enjoy what someone else has created.
In creative tech use, we are the agent. We are taking action; we are doing something for a purpose and definitely using a different part of our brain than when we are just consuming entertainment content.
These are not necessarily all positive or all negative, but often our balance is off in the direction of too much consumptive, scroll-y binge-y stuff, you know. 😉
And we were pretty sure that’s exactly what was happening to Paul’s quarantine time tech use.
Tech Connections: Social
About four to six weeks into the quarantine, I asked him if he had heard from any of his three closest buddies from school.
Nope, not a single one.
Not a single contact.
No surprise, he was feeling a little isolated.
We wanted to encourage Paul to use the computer to connect with friends through email.
It took a deep conversation with mom and dad about tech balance to realize that he fully had the capacity to reach out to his friends to schedule an online video game afternoon or just to check in to see how they were doing.
Once he did that, I noticed that his whole demeanor changed in the next week.
We are social beings and need to be connected! And we’re grateful in these times that tech can help us do that.
Tech for Growth: Creative
We also had to challenge Paul to use the screens to be more creative.
We asked him about spending time (which he enjoys) doing some writing, video editing, graphic design — really anything where he could be the agent, not the passive subject.
But how to avoid a tech power struggle with our teen?
Conversations with Teens about Tech Use
We sat Paul down and had a conversation.
We asked him to create some categories of how he used tech already.
We didn’t judge their worth at all, but just let him talk, and I took notes.
He came up with:
- learning something he’s interested in
- learning something he’s required to learn
- creating something new
I had him list under each category the ways in which he spent time doing those things.
- social: email or Google Hangouts
- entertainment: video games and YouTube
- creative: writing stories and editing videos
- required learning: school stuff and homework
We realized that sometimes watching videos fit under the “learning things I’m interested in” category, such as Mark Rober’s awesome science explanations on YouTube.
Our next step was to ask him what percentage of his free time he felt he wanted to spend in each category. Again, no judgment.
I decided to end with entertainment since I had a hunch that category had taken over more of his time than he realized.
When he applied percentages to the first four, his percentage remaining for entertainment was only about 30 or 40%. Then we took a quick estimate of how much time he was probably spending on screens using Disney Circle’s data.
When we did the math to figure out how much time should be entertainment based on his own percentages, it was a much smaller number than he knew he had been spending.
This was a very eye-opening conversation for us and one of the most worthwhile hours that I’ve spent as a parent in 2020.
Our goal was to help him make his own decisions, evaluate his own technology use, and, honestly, to set his own goals. I even made a rule for myself internally that when I wanted to say something, I had to count to five before I talked!
If you have a child between about fifth grade and eighth grade, I strongly encourage you to talk about these three categories of tech use: creative, consumptive, and social.
Begin to help them see how they’re using their screens and how well-balanced or unbalanced these three categories are.
No need for judgment about whether each category is positive or negative, although it’s pretty easy to place consumptive in the more negative category because most of us tend toward too much consumptive time in comparison to the other two.
That’s because consuming content is much easier and humans like to conserve energy. Side note: “conserving energy” is a great way to avoid saying “lazy”, even though that’s kind of what it means.
Once you’ve established the vocabulary for your three categories — let’s call them the Tech Playlist — then as your child grows older, you can start to have more nuanced and intellectual conversations about how to rate the quality within each category.
Here’s a great YouTube video to watch with your tween or tween to get the conversation started.
Pandemic Screen Time Completely Changed for our Teen
After that conversation, we were able to ask Paul questions like, “How’s your balance going?” Or, “What category screen time are you working on right now?”
We tried to be super chill about it and, again, non-judgmental, and I could see a complete shift in Paul’s attitude and daily focus and motivation.
He started to learn graphic design to make some free gifts for those who bought his cookbook. He started to mess around with video editing just for fun.
And, as I mentioned above, he reached out to friends for the first time. This allowed us to have some great conversations about the worthwhileness of each category of tech use.
For example, playing video games for three hours by yourself is possibly not as good for our beings as playing three hours of video games with a friend from afar in your ear.
Combining social and consumptive, to me, makes the consumptive activity have a much greater ROI.
Paul also pointed out to me that some video games really do use the executive functioning part of your brain, like when you are creating worlds in Minecraft or figuring out puzzles to beat a certain game.
I thought about my own social media use and realized that social media isn’t just social.
If I’m in a scroll-y mood, it can be purely consumptive. Posting my own content is actually creative, and interacting with others by liking or commenting is much more social.
Although I tend to think of social tech use as positive, we get to nuance that as well. It can be totally addictive to seek that dopamine hit, looking for other people to like our posts.
We adults especially, but teenagers as well, can fall into the comparison game, always thinking that someone else has it better than us.
This is definitely not good for our brains or our stress levels.
And sometimes people are snooty.
People are trolls.
People are mean.
If that’s happening to you, it makes tech use negative for sure. If you are the cyber bully, tech is giving you a vehicle to make bad choices.
There are nuances with consumptive time too. Although I tend to think of it as more on the negative side, check this out:
- Watching a video with someone you love actually creates a shared experience that you can then discuss and becomes a much more social thing.
- We know that humor and good belly laughs are very important to reduce our stress hormones. There’s no easier way to get a great belly laugh than watching something hilarious on YouTube!
- And as we’ve all seen during the pandemic, technology can definitely be used for learning as well. And so even though we’re consuming something someone else has created, we are definitely building our brains with all that knowledge.
And regardless of how the conversation falls, try blue blocker glasses at night to reduce impact on circadian rhythm.
What About a Digital Detox?
Particularly in this time of so many kids stuck with virtual learning (and honestly with us adults spending so much time on screens for both work and recreation), everyone in the family needs a digital detox every so often.
I know folks who take an entire weekend day with zero screens, even their phone. (Yes, it’s possible.) It’s something I know I should do more often!!
It’s great to take a detox when on vacation, especially for kids. We like to go on road trips and stay in Airbnbs without tablets or phones, just (gasp!) board games. Or camping!
But even a short but regular digital detox: just a few evenings a week, or “just” family dinnertime, or every night after 7 p.m. — anytime when no screens are allowed at all will help your family pull back and be present to one another in person.
And who knows? Maybe you want to commit to a day per week or a full weekend a month for digital detox — now that I’ve planted the seed that we need it, see what happens. 🙂
I’m thinking I need one big time, and soon!
Bottom Line on Screen Time for Teens and Older Kids
Kids grow. Kids need different rules as they grow older.
I’m still in favor of time-limited screen time for little kids, but we need something more complicated for the Parenting Handbook for tweens and teens.
The pandemic has confused this with so many “trying to learn online” as Marcy Pusey teaches us in this fascinating interview. And personally, I would agree with the experts who say that kids who are on screens for school probably should not have recreational screen time in the evening.
Here’s a quick recap of how your kids might need different screen time regulations as they grow older.
- Upper Elementary and Early Middle School: Talk with your kids about the three categories — consumptive, creative, and social. Encourage them to strike some sort of balance between the three.
- Middle School: As kids use their screens for school and social connections increasingly, it’s time to begin to discuss addictive temptations and how different ways of using screens even within the categories can be positive or negative.
- High School: You only have four years left with your teens before they are off on their own making 100% of their own technology decisions! It’s time to have all the nuanced conversations, where you discuss positive and negative nuances and also how different ways of using screens can cross the categories. Help your teen make their own decisions on how their technology use fits their life goals — both immediate while they are in high school and future when they grow up. Continue to remind yourself that you need to raise a technologically literate adult.
Training our kids to be successful independent adults includes tech literacy.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like parenting in today’s technology driven world is like trying to learn a new game without the rule book.
In fact, technology has changed everything about parenting (almost), so we have to rewrite the rules.
It’s time to say goodbye to power struggles over screen time. I’d love to share what really works for my family as we attempt to balance screen time with real life!
I hope your technology use today and the time you spent reading this post is solidly in your positive bucket even though it was consumptive!
Now go get social and share it with other parents who need it, and get creative and start thinking about the next conversation you’ll have with your kids.
- Boers, E., Afzali, M.H., Newton, N., Conrod, P. (2019, July 15) Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence. JAMA Pediatr, 173(9), 853–859. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1759
- Marples, M. (2020, July 29). Screen time and kids: Parents need to worry less about hours logged. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/29/health/screen-time-kids-report-wellness/index.html
- Rodgers, K. (2019, October 29). Teens Average 7+ Hours Of Screen Time Daily, Not Including School Work. Retrieved from https://boston.cbslocal.com/2019/10/29/teens-screen-time-study/
- Ferguson, C.J. (2017, February 7). Everything in Moderation: Moderate Use of Screens Unassociated with Child Behavior Problems. Psychiatric Quarterly 88, 797–805. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11126-016-9486-3
- Miller, S. (2017, February 9). Teens and Screens: How Much Is OK? Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/57826-screen-time-teens.html
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About Katie Kimball
Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.
Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.
A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.