Screen time - can it be a good thing?

Screen time tends to be a sensitive topic that often leaves parents feeling defensive. Please note that I do not mention whether we do or do not allow screen time for our children, or if we do, what kind or how much. This post is not meant to address or judge any individual situation; rather, I am interested in exploring the topic of screen time at a more global level, and reflect on my own observations in hopes of articulating my concern about the impact of screen time on children.


Recently, my friend posted a link on Facebook to this article. It is a short piece in which Susan Linn argues that screen time deprives kids of the opportunity to be creative, which is detrimental to development. Here is an excerpt that captures the main point:

A commercialized, screen-saturated culture deprives children of what’s essential to creativity: time, space and silence. Children constantly bombarded with stimulation are so busy reacting that they never learn how to generate. Instantaneous access to an endless array of videos, television, apps and games may stave off boredom. But those stretches of having “nothing to do” are exactly what foster the creative intersection of children’s inner world and their immediate surroundings.

As with everything, there is a range of tolerance among parents when it comes to screen time. There are, of course, the two extremes – those who prohibit any screen time and those who allow a free-for-all, but most parents fall somewhere in the middle, acknowledging that screen time generally isn’t good for young children, but still allowing it in moderation due to the reality of our culture.

For example, it is pretty common for kids to watch TV here and there so the parents can take a shower in the morning, respond to an important work email, make a few quick phone calls, or prepare dinner late in the afternoon. The TV/Computer/iPhone is the perfect babysitter – it is available on demand, captivating, and free. In other words, it is a sure thing - parents can do what they need to do, knowing their kids are occupied and safe. On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, to allow a little screen time in order to get things done, especially if parents are conscientious about what they allow their children to watch. Many TV shows are gentle, benign stories, and there are hundreds of educational apps that teach kids about music, nature, math, art, reading, etc. In other words, the content isn’t detrimental in any way. In fact, in the comments section of Linn’s article, some argue that screen time may even be beneficial, and that technology not only allows for creativity, but also allows for better learning.

So, assuming screen time occurs in moderation and parents carefully select screen-based activities that are age appropriate and educational, can screen time be a good thing? I think it is necessary to look at (a) what the child is getting out of screen time, (b) what the child isn’t getting out of screen time, and (c) what the child could be doing instead.

The answers will vary depending on the type of screen time. During a TV show, children passively watch a two-dimensional story play out. The benefit may be a lesson in morals (two friends work through a conflict), or the presentation of factual information (the life cycle of a butterfly). The drawback is the lack of both an imaginative component and a sense of independence. Unlike a book, which has a limited number of images for a few selected scenes of the story, a TV show provides continuous imagery covering every single moment, leaving no room for imagination. While a nature show on the life cycle of a butterfly may present valuable information, the show progresses at a set pace that does not allow the child time to focus in on and examine any one image, as he/she might choose to do when reading a book or observing a butterfly in the backyard. 

For an “educational” app, however, there may be additional benefits. The child may have the opportunity to create a picture using an art app, or use problem-solving skills in a game that requires completing a puzzle to save a princess. But still, there is little room for imagination beyond what is already programmed into the app, and in addition, while children may use their hands to control what happens on the screen, they are not actually touching anything other than the keyboard, mouse, or keypad. Their sensory experience is limited to flashing lights and a repetitive audio response.

All in all, the drawbacks are not actually harmful, but the benefits are not all that impressive, especially when compared to other options, which brings us to the third, and really, the most essential question, what could the child be doing instead? Even if screen time does allow for creativity, problem solving, and imagination, what is the alternative activity? A simple example is an art app vs. drawing with crayons and paper. In an art app, children can create shapes, designs, and even elaborate pictures using a wide range of colors; it is an open-ended, creative experience. The same is true for drawing with crayons and paper, but the child also experiences valuable sensory input: the waxy smell of fresh crayons; the weight of a crayon, with broken pieces being lighter and harder to grasp than bigger pieces, and bigger pieces snapping easily if pressed too hard to the paper; the different shades one crayon can make depending on the pressure applied; the toughness of the paper as it crinkles or tears when scrubbed on; the pattern that appears through the picture from an unevenness under the paper – such as crumbs on the table or deliberately placing a leaf under the paper; the finality of the mark that cannot be erased. As adults, we take our experiential knowledge for granted, often forgetting that children do not yet know what we know. Drawing with crayons and paper offers far more information about the world than the most powerful art app.

Instead of spending time in front of a screen, a child could be building a spaceship with Legos, setting up a tea party for dolls, creating a swamp out of the living room, where the floor is quicksand and cushions are land…the possibilities are endless and they all engage problem solving, social, and physical skills. Plus, falling into a hardwood floor quicksand pit is a sensation that a screen simply can’t provide.

But perhaps even more important than the skills children are gaining through their play is the development of self-reliance. I remember the boredom of waiting rooms, restaurants, and long car rides. Because complaints of boredom were ignored, and fidgeting and impatience were considered poor behavior, my sister and I had to be resourceful. We played tic tac toe and hangman on receipts found in our mom’s purse, made fortune tellers out of napkins, perfected our cat’s cradle skills, played hand games, and made up silly guessing games and songs that got us across three states. Looking back, I realize now how firmly my parents set the expectation that they were not available to entertain us or find activities to occupy our time.  The responsibility of figuring out how and what to play fell on us, not them.

Returning to the original question: can screen time be a good thing? Even though screen time in and of itself is not necessarily harmful, it’s what the child is not doing - the sensory input and physical experience that the child is not getting - during that time that can be detrimental to development. Obviously, movie night or enjoying a TV show or app here and there is not going to cause any developmental delays. But screen time so quickly becomes a habit, a quick fix for boredom, and 30-60 minutes a day – the time it takes to take a shower, answer a few emails, and make dinner – adds up pretty quickly, especially when free play is already minimal due to homework (which now seems to start in kindergarten), afterschool activities, and time spent in the car getting to and from these activities. In many cases, those 30-60 minutes a parent takes for him/herself may be the only opportunity a child has for free play… and in that case, I think screen time, no matter what the show or app, is not a good thing.