Stop Counting Screen Time

6 minute read
Thomas is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Hope College. She researches child and adolescent development funded by The Templeton World Charity Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation

Tracking screen time is like counting calories: It is partially accurate but misleading. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics provide time-based guidelines for screens in young children: For babies and toddlers, keep the screens to Facetime family and friends. For younger kids, 1 to 2 hours, and from ages 6 to 12, keep it to roughly 2 hours.

For those who are not raising children, the guidelines seem straightforward. Shouldn’t it be easy to count one hour of PBS before dinner? That’s not most people’s reality. Older siblings watch shows near younger ones. Tablets are in the car. Texting arrives earlier than parents expect and comes in spurts of screen time throughout the day. Even the most media-stringent parents get submerged by elementary school in a nebulous cloud. Screens bleed into play and school activities.

As someone who reads empirical research for a living, I am quite cautious about my children’s screen time. But screens are not the only source of childhood misfortune. The minute-by-minute guilt reminds me of the burden of counting calories. A push for detailed, numbers-driven control must surely tame the unruly beast. But it doesn’t.

Screens are too ubiquitous for minute-by-minute analysis. Counting screen time becomes an organizational feat—like pulling out a calorie app every time you try a bite of a friend’s parfait.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, nutrition books focused increasingly on counting calories. It reached its peak around 2013. Yet, reducing calorie intake does not guarantee health. Consuming an appropriate amount of calories can still lead to anemia, high blood pressure, or metabolic dysfunction. Today, there is more knowledge dissemination around the quantity of sugar and the timing of food. Healthy interventions change how food is offered or address underlying issues. But while public dialogue around nutrition is imperfect, it has come a long way. Screen time needs the same conceptual shift.

Read More: Maybe Our Phones Aren’t the Problem, Argues a New Book

Parents say raising children today is hardest because of screens. Nearly half of 8-12 year-olds have phones, but almost 80% of parents don’t think it is right for them to. The average American child spends 5.5 hours of entertainment screen time per day (over double the guidelines), much of which is on YouTube and social media.

Screen-time guidelines are based on decades of research on only television. This is why the guidelines seem unglued from how screens are used in most families. Of course, the basic finding still holds true: more time on screens means less time outside and asleep. But there will never be decades of longitudinal evidence on updated technology. Media guidelines will inevitably be an educated guess.

What’s more, the focus on hours takes the focus away from content and context. Screens are no longer just television. Today’s screens are portable and individual. They pop in and out and layer on top of each other—texting while completing online homework with the TV on in the background.

Instead of counting screen time, parents can think about the time of day, what is on the screen, what it is replacing, and what it is adding.

Shifting the time of day (without diminishing the amount) is the most important thing to promote healthy screen habits. Three out of four children look at screens an hour before bed. When screens affect sleep, everything wilts: distractibility increases, metabolism slows, emotions dysregulate, and attention wains. A candy bar before bed, for instance, will be metabolized differently than a candy bar before a run. Even still, the nutrients in the snack still matter.

The difference between an avocado and a bowl of ice cream isn’t really in the calories; it’s in the nutritional content. The nutritional content of the screen also matters. From 2019 to 2021, there was a larger increase in entertainment media usage than in the previous four years.  While that is unsurprising, it would behoove us to ask what kind of screen time increased? The answer: It was primarily in social media and YouTube. There was no increase in reading on screens.

One study followed over 4,000 Australian children for five years and found that what was on the screen mattered more than the amount of time. Passive scrolling and watching videos are similar to the simple fats and sugars: Fastest to digest and most detrimental long-term. Interactive games with friends were better; the most nutritious options were educational games and reading.

Screens are often problematic because of what they are replacing. Screen time, for one, shouldn’t be a self-soothing hack. Rage and grief are often resolved by screen distraction instead of real coping. Screens bump out exercise, books, and, perhaps most importantly, free, unstructured time. Boredom stimulates creativity and often catalyzes new ideas and “aha moments.” Exercise activates the brain. Books teach children to focus and get lost in a narrative. Unstructured play time forces them to problem-solve and invent. Being frequently distracted, as a result, is a developmental dead-end.

To be clear, screens are not the only source of childhood misfortune. Other generations were failing children long before we all bought tablets. But screens can easily encroach on other life skills. Are children still learning to calm themselves down? Have eye-to-eye conversations? And fall asleep by themselves? When screens are used to avoid emotional meltdowns and fall asleep independently, they undermine the human capacity to process emotions and learn to rest. Empty calories.

But food is also for pleasure. Joy. Celebration. Likewise, screens add connection, play, and efficiency to life. It is wonderful to Facetime with grandma or play Minecraft with a cousin. School is better when gamified concepts or adaptive quizzing teaches a skill faster. People engage in online communities that share a similar interest, a rare disease, or a unique support system.

Counting calories can be a helpful first step to realizing the highest-calorie foods or recognizing unhealthy patterns. Counting provides the audit before an intervention. But it is an exhausting (and frankly useless) long-term option.

Counting isn’t a problem-solving strategy. Statistically, most people consume both too many calories and too much screen time. It is time to focus on when it is happening and what it is replacing. Ensure youth still get high-quality doses of boredom, exercise, sleep, and live friendships.

Screen time will pale in importance.

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