Why Referring to “Screen Time” May Not Be Helpful to You or Your Kids

Recently, I had a brief, but eye-opening interaction with one of my kids:

“Dad, can I use the iPad?”
“Sure, if you want to create something or draw for a bit, that sounds great.”
“But daaaad, I just wanna watch a show. I don’t want to do anything.”

How should I respond? Is saying, “You have 23 minutes left of ‘screen time'” a sufficient response? Are there more instructive tools can I use to help my child grow and mature?

Worries about Technology and Screens

TIME Magazine recently name the iPhone the most influential gadget of all time, and yet a recent survey found more than half of teens feel they are addicted to their smartphone. But let’s not be quick to judge just our youth. Other studies show that its actually older Americans who the ones most likely to use their phones during meals. The studies go on and on, with researchers finding that up to 33% of people feel depressed after using Facebook (everyone else is having more fun), and even simply having a screen visible during a conversation can make people feel sad and anxious.

We obviously need help navigating this new world, so what should we do with these devices that appear to be causing us so much pain and suffering?

The common response has been to regulate the amount of “screen time” or to commit to going “screen free” for periods of time. While this response can be helpful to a degree (and as a parent, it’s super easy to implement), I think it can also hide a chance for more careful and thoughtful reflection.

How “Screen Time” Became Outdated and Unhelpful

The term “screen time” was created in an earlier era when “screen” referred to just one thing – a television – and “screen time” referred to how much time we spent watching TV shows. This changed in the 1980s, when the television grew an appendage – the video game console – and “screen time” expanded from referring exclusively to passive consumption to include some form of interaction and perhaps even social participation.

In the 1990s, as personal home computers became more common, “screen time” became even more ambiguous. Families now had a “screen” that was primarily suited for new kinds of creativity, writing, drawing, video editing, 3D modeling, and information gathering.

Today the passive consumption of television, the interactive nature of game consoles, and the utility of computers have all been merged into the portable, glowing rectangles of various sizes we now use for everything from communicating with relatives to filing our taxes to recording and posting our child’s first steps. Unfortunately, screens are also use them to bully classmates, consume pornography, and falsely glamorize our lives.

With all these activities collapsed into one device, the blunt force tool of “screen time” doesn’t really do much to help us avoid the damaging uses of screens or habituate us away from the tendencies toward vapidness and self-focus that are so common on screens.

Axes for Thinking about Screens

So if  “screen time” is no longer adequate, what should we use instead? Below are several categories or axes (plural of axis, not axe :) of thinking that can help us think more deeply about how we’re using our happy little glowing rectangles.

Creation vs. Consumption – This is what my child was getting at in the opening conversation. Sometimes you just want to passively consume something, and in moderation there’s a place for that. But in that moment, I judged that we’d had enough consumption for the weekend, and I wanted to encourage my kids to find something that would express their God-given creativity rather than sit passively and consume more. However, my criteria is not “on screen” or “off screen”; rather, it’s creating (with Lego, paper, iPad, playdoh, dolls, etc.) vs. consuming (television, YouTube, etc.). “Screen time” alone would limit both indiscriminately. (Note: you can see this breakdown in Common Sense Media’s four categories of teen screen usage)

As helpful as this first axis is, alone it is just as insufficient as “screen time,” because there are certain important forms of consumption that we shouldn’t deny, but should encourage. For example, quite a bit of what we do at church (reading scripture, listening to a sermon) are good, edifying forms of consumption. And this leads us to the next axis.

Entertainment and/or Enrichment – I want my kids to avoid harmful immoral material, but I always want them to think about how something shapes them. A history book can be enriching, but it’s not always entertaining, while a LEGO Star Wars book can be quite entertaining, but not very enriching. In other words, in screen or in print, a diet of Captain Underpants and Twilight (“At least they’re reading!”) is not the same as a diet of Little House on the Prairie and The Hobbit. But notice this one has “and/or” instead of “vs.” because some works like The Hobbit are both entertaining and enriching at the same time. (You might also use “edifying”)

Individual vs. Near Social vs. Distant Social – Screens can be used just by one person or by a group to do something together, but neither is necessarily positive or negative by itself. For example, when I read the Bible for personal devotion, whether its print or on a screen, it’s very much an individual activity and still a good one. Conversely, when I play a video game with my kids, we usually play cooperative games which have at least some social significance (that said gazing at a screen together is different than gazing at one another across a board game). We can also further delineate social activities to consider if they are with those physically near us (playing Risk on a tablet) or with those far away on another device (video chat).  The point is that individual activities are not necessarily bad and social activities aren’t always amazingly deep, but learning to recognize the difference can help us grow in our decision making and avoid either/or thinking about screens.

Bonus Categories

The three above are probably a great start for helping us and our kids think more clearly about the place of screens in our lives, but I’ll offer a few more just in case it helps.

Outward vs. Inward – This category is designed to help us consider whether we are using social media to promote ourselves vs. actually interact, uplift, and encourage others.  It’s easy to put Instagram in the “social” category above, but I often find myself using tools like Instagram to try to direct others toward me, rather than build them up. This category can also help us think about how screen use affects those physically around us. Recently, when I got home from work, I opened my computer to work on a plan to build a treehouse for my kids. This is creative (not consumptive) screen use that is “outwardly” focused, but I discovered that my screen usage was communicating that I didn’t want to help my wife with dinner or play with my kids during a prime time. One can’t always avoid this – work and taxes sometimes call – which makes this one of the trickiest categories, but it also gives us another tool to think about our screens more deeply.

Movement/Body vs. Stationary/Mind – This weekend I let son use my laptop to write something while my daughter and I went for a jog and recorded it with a phone. The first was a stationary activity of the mind, the second had movement and bodies. One of the potential dangers of using any media, whether creating or consuming, entertaining or enriching, is that we forget that being human means having both a mind and body. Our world of screens and pages tends to focus on us on our minds, so we need to compensate and reclaim our bodies (even if we use a screen as part of the physical activity).

Evaluating Screen Activities

So let’s see how various activities might fall on the scales above.

  • Playing Angry Birds/Watching YouTube
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Letting child use the Peppa Pig painting app
    creationentertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Listening to a podcast while running
    consumption, enrichment (maybe), individual or social, inward, body and mind
  • Reading a Bible app with kids
    consumption, edifying/entertainment, near social, outward, mind
  • Reading Macrumors.com on a phone in the bathroom
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, mind
  • Scanning through Instagram feed
    consumption, entertainment, individual or distant social, inward, mental
  • Using Facebook to find things going on in people’s life to talk/pray about
    consumption, enrichment, distant social, outward, mind
    (I’ve successfully done this about 1 in every 38,000 times I’ve used Facebook)
  • Looking up a recipe for dinner and making it
    creative, enrichment, individual or near social, outward, moving/body

So Let’s Retire “Screen Time”

I hope these categories and examples demonstrates that teaching our kids that “screen time is bad and should be limited” while “anything other than screens is good and unlimited” doesn’t really help them navigate today’s world.

Certainly, there are times when we need to unplug, disconnect, live in the moment, and hide the phone. But as screens become more and more ever present, we adults and the children in our care need to learn more complex forms of discernment.

I hope you find at least one of these axes useful and that you add your own (near vs. far?) as you think through how to flourish in this world, appreciating the wonderful tools at our disposal, while constantly evaluating how they shape us as we use them.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

6 thoughts on “Why Referring to “Screen Time” May Not Be Helpful to You or Your Kids”

  1. Thank you. I found this very helpful. I can identify with many of the examples you use, and am in that exact space of wanting / needing to have a more sophisticated and useful way of articulating what is good and what is not for our children’s time with digital devices.

  2. Thanks! What a great way to look at it. As a mom of a 3 year old boy who is only what could loosely be called “still” or “quiet” when he is parked in front of the TV I tend to bounce between the extremes of zero screen time (as an attempt to correct attitude and behavior as well as connection and communication issues) and all the screen time he wants because I don’t want to get out of bed at 6 am or I need to cook/clean/tend to baby/talk to husband for a few uninterrupted minutes about whatever. I will definitely be more closely watching for opportunities for interaction and edification! For a 3yo that’s a “moral to the story” and we talk about it, right?

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