Taking a balanced approach to "screen time"

As an EdTech specialist, one of the topics I'm most aware of when I'm talking to educators and parents, aside from "digital citizenship" (which, as I've mentioned, needs to go away now), is "screen time".

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Many educators and parents have a fear of what too much screen time will do to their children's cognitive and social development, and that fear comes from a very legitimate place. So many articles and online commentaries shout at parents and teachers that "too much screen time damages kids brains", and who could ignore a warning (threat?) like that?

The fact of the matter is that many of the opinions and summaries of the research presented about screen time lack nuance, and it is a nuanced issue. 

 Let's look at some of the reasons why, with screen time, it's not as simple as it seems.

1. It's not always that children are using a screen, it's that they aren't doing something else.

Demonising 'screens' takes us away from the core issues, which are twofold:

  • What is happening with the screen

and, crucially, 

  • what ISN'T happening, because the child is using a device.

What do I mean by that? Well, when we see articles and blogposts that draw on the research that suggests that children who engage in extended screen time results in obesitypoor sleep, language delays or inhibited social development they tend to focus on the exposure to the screen and imply that it is somehow the causative factor. In some cases it is (see point 3 below) but in many cases we latch on to the screen as the issue, when in fact the screen is the symptom, not the cause of an issue.

Screens, obviously, don't cause obesity. Excessive calories and insufficient exercise do that, and screens are just the thing children, teenagers and adults are doing instead of exercising. The focus in that instance needs to be on the activity that is missing, not the activity that has taken its place. How can we get kids to be more active? How can we leverage the interests and motivations they have to get them moving? Sometimes screens can actually be the tool that helps in that situation - Pokemon Go, for example, takes the allure of games and screen time and gets kids and adults outdoors, and has been shown to significantly increase activity levels in some studies.

With language development, is it the screen that causes the delay, or is it that while your kids are watching said screen, they aren't talking to you? That distinction is important, because it helps you as a teacher and a parent to make objective decisions about screen time. Instead of taking a black and white view that "screen time is bad, it causes language delays", we can say that screen time should not take the place of conversation.

Switch off the TV and devices during dinner and talk about your day as a family, or structure lessons so that students have to collaborate and discuss frequently when using devices in your classroom. But all humans also need time to be quiet, to be alone, and to focus on a solitary task and at those times a screen isn't taking the place of interpersonal interactions.

2. Screen time has different effects on children at different stages of development. 


If you can ignore the anxiety-inducing headers in this Psychology Today blog post, the core message is that screen time for children under 2 years old is not beneficial because their little brains are developing at a phenomenal rate, compared to the rest of their lives.

The real 'danger time' for screen time is during this early childhood phase - this is the time kids need to be spending as much time as possible engaging with their caregivers in the real world, rather than passively watching screens. At this age they can't engage meaningfully with anything a screen has to offer anyway, but that changes as children get older.

By school age there are many potential benefits to moderate screen time, when that time involves using digital technology to problem solve, communicate, collaborate, create and learn in enhanced ways. I have been in the position of working with a teacher who had a student in their class who was not permitted to look at any screens at all... ever. If the teacher was using the SMARTboard, the student was supposed to physically turn around. This is an extreme example of the outcome of the kind of fear-mongering that so much of the discourse about screen time utilises, and a tremendous shame for that student. Rather than being saved in some way from the evils of the screen, that student was simply excluded from participating in an enhanced educational experience.

3. There's just no such thing as 'screen time'

By which I mean, when we use the term 'screen time' it implies that all time spent looking at and interacting with any kind of screen is exactly the same. And it isn't. The child who spends 1 hour passively watching cartoons is not having the same screen experience as the child who spends 1 hour actively playing an educational game, solving problems in an app, or writing a story on a tablet.

In this TEDx talk, Dimitri Christakis presents his research about overstimulation which applies primarily to very young children (see point 2). One of the examples he gives of overstimulating screen content are shows like Powerpuff girls, which have rapid scene changes and high octane music. In contrast he shows a clip of Mr Rogers, which has a very relaxing, near glacial pace and focuses on interpersonal behaviours. Not all screen time has to be the Powerpuff Girls to Mr Rogers' Neighbourhood. Curating the types of input students get from screens can go a long way towards ensuring that the screen time they do have is helpful, not harmful.

Take for example Bloxels. If you don't know what Bloxels is, check out their video:

What Bloxels does is let children build 2D platform computer games using real-world materials. It will necessitate using a screen to test and play the game but simply playing the game isn't the only point: it's also about problem solving, creating, working together and so much more.

works in a similar way but with paper - yes, kids can draw video games on paper, scan them and make them real (mind blown).

Just as a few other quick examples, Quandary is an example of a digital game that encourages discussion and decision-making, Sphero robots are controlled by tablets and smartphones and allow children to learn to code, apply maths concepts, solve problems and be creative, and something as simple as illustrating your point or provoking discussion through an excellent TED Talk are all examples of screen time that helps, rather than harms.

Photo by  Bekir Dönmez  on  Unsplash

Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

This debate needs balance

Does it matter what age the child is when using devices with screens?


Does it matter what the child is doing with the screen?


Does it matter what activity could be happening if the screen were not there?

Yes, both in terms of what could be missed by engaging in screen time, and what might be missed by avoiding screen time.


As educators, and as parents if you are one, we have the ability and the access to knowledge to allow us to make objective, purposeful, reasoned decisions about how we use screens to benefit our children and students. Trying to turn this into a black and white issue wont help and, what's more, it wont work. There are too many screens, too much to lose by ignoring them and too much to gain by using them right.

Headlines and clickbait articles don't like nuance, but nuance is exactly what the conversation about screen time needs.