Making Sense of Screen Time: Is It Really So Bad for Our Kids?

By Dawn Van Osdell

There’s a lot of contradictory and downright erroneous parenting info floating around out there. We’re not afraid to tackle it head-on!

It’s been drilled into our heads that allowing our kids to watch too much television or play apps and games will rot their growing brains. Over and over we’ve heard from various experts that screen-time overload keeps kids from necessary active or outdoor play, limits human interactions that are critical to proper development, and exposes kids to violence and content that is too mature for them to properly process.

While there’s truth in all of this—families are wise to heed the American Academy of Pediatrics’  recommendation to limit kids’ screen time to no more than two hours per day— it’s also important to recognize the educational and developmental benefits that kids can glean from technology, including better hand-eye coordination, school readiness, and boosts to cognitive development.

To help us dispel common myths around our kids’ use of tech (and ease a little of our guilt about handing over our iPhone), we spoke to Jordan Lloyd Bookey, a mom of two and co-founder of Zoobean, a service that helps families locate children's books and apps that are worth their time. A former Google employee, Bookey is passionate about tech innovations, and an expert at making smart media choices on behalf of kids. Here she shares her advice on how to create a healthy media diet, and use it to enrich childrens' ever-curious minds.

Myth #1: Kids should be doing something active or imaginative rather than relying on technology for entertainment.

Truth: Active play and socializing with family and friends should be an integral part of your child’s life, but there’s an important role for technology to play, too. “We just need to remember that all screen time is not created equal,” says Bookey. “It’s about the content and how your child is engaging with it.” You can plop your kids in front a television or a tablet to watch a cartoon or play a game while you’re getting ready for the day—essentially, using the device as a babysitter, which every parent does on occasion. Conversely, you can use technology as a powerful way to engage with your kids. According to Bookey, “It can give us opportunities to co-play together—to ask questions and help kids develop and process a deeper meaning from what they are seeing.” Build a healthy media repertoire that consists of quality, parent-approved content, to balance the occasional just-for-fun cartoons and games with interactive experiences for both of you.

Myth #2: Kids have to choose between inside screen time and outside play.

Truth: “Technology can be an excellent complement to outdoor play,” says Bookey. It can enhance outdoor exploration, spark kids’ curiosity, and get them excited about learning about their surroundings. Using technology outside can be as simple as taking a minute to look up questions about the world around them—for instance, Why do ants build hills? Or why are there so many worms out after it rains? You can use a smart phone to document finds or visit websites like National Geographic to dive deeper into the topic, exploring where insects live, how big they get and what they eat. Apps like the National Park Field Guide act as guide books; others, like Munzee, can be used to initiate a scavenger hunt; and Leafsnap is fun for identifying trees. For kids living in urban environments, technology can provide a window into a bigger world, allowing them to explore and experience nature beyond just a park or green space.

Myth #3: Playing on the computer, iPad, or Mom's phone is a mindless activity to pass the time, and it’s addictive!

Truth: Every parent should have their own rules about the use of technology at home—setting boundaries on content, restricting devices from the dinner table, and forbidding it before bedtime, for instance—in order to ensure that kids get plenty of human interaction. “If you let kids overload on technology, they are going to miss out on developing good communication skills and building their emotional IQ. But, if you find a balance and allow its use in moderation, you can help your kids embrace new skills that are hugely beneficial,” says Bookey. For instance, kids are often more willing to take risks and make mistakes when playing apps that help them practice math, reading, and writing skills. “Apps are non-judgmental,” says Bookey. “No one knows if a a kid messed up an answer, so they’ll keep trying.” Games like the eternally popular Minecraft can help kids build analytical thinking and drive creativity. “Think of technology like food,” says Bookey. “You want your child to know what’s good for him—to know the difference between a chocolate chip cookie that’s okay in moderation, and healthier alternatives that he should choose more often; and you want him to be able to make smart decisions when choosing between the two.” As with any diet, it’s all about creating a balanced mix.

Photograph by William Iven