Media & TechnologyParenting Styles

Screen Time for Kids

Screen time for kids; the overwhelming message to parents is don’t do it, don’t over-do it and if you have to do it, supervise it. But proper analyses of whether it makes a difference what you are watching or playing are rare, which is why I was so pleased to see this article on which reflects a lot of the criticism I have about studies on screen time.

Since I became a parent, concern about how much screen time is too much screen time for my kids has been an ongoing concern. Our home is filled with screens: TV screen, computer screens, laptops, PSP, Xbox, iPads and smart phones. My partner and I both enjoy playing computer games and have dedicated a fairly significant amount of time and resources to this pastime. Although we don’t watch that much TV (well, Mou doesn’t), we are glued to our iPads through which we access news, entertainment, social media, mail and occasionally even work. Our work lives are similarly technology driven and we both spend at least eight hours a day working at a computer.

Not surprisingly, our kids are screen savvy. At seven months Fynn is still too young for it to be a major issue, but she definitely understands that if you touch the iPad screen things happen. She has also been exposed to rather more television than I would like, as sitting down with Rose to watch half an hour of TV at the end of a hectic day is one of my preferred methods of passing time peacefully between dinner and bedtime, and Fynn necessarily gets included. Rose meanwhile is fully versed in all things technological.

Typical reports (such as this one) on screen time reflect the ongoing research into the effects of screen time and note that

1. according to a new bingo cash review, children spend excessive amounts of time in front of the television and computer (the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) apparently estimates that the average child spends seven hours of their day looking at a screen, be it a video game, computer, cell phone, or television), and

2. this leads to negative outcomes such as :

  • increased risk of obesity
  • struggling to get to sleep and sleeping badly
  • violence
  • reduced energy
  • having a harder time at school, and
  • greater exposure to advertising and propaganda.


And the research showing negative effects of screen-time continue to come in, with March 2014 studies linking screen time to increased BMI and adverse effects on emotional well-being. Consequently organisations such as the AAP to make the following recommendation:

“The AAP recommends that parents establish “screen-free” zones at home by making sure there are no televisions, computers or video games in children’s bedrooms, and by turning off the TV during dinner. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies, and using their imaginations in free play.”

And they therefore recommend:

  • no screen time for babies
  • less than two hours for toddlers and older children (including teens)


While I don’t have a particular issue with any of these recommendations, I do think that the high-quality content part is understated and I am concerned about the parent-shaming that goes with allowing your kids access to TV and other electronic devices. I also find it hard to imagine how children average seven hours a day in front of a screen – don’t they go to school or eat or sleep?

It is a very rare day, when there is more than 2 hours of television in our house (well, that Rose and Fynn are exposed to; I have been known to binge on a series or two after everyone else is asleep).

iPad is another story. There are days when the first words out of Rose’s mouth, before “good morning” or “I need to pee”, are “Can I play on your iPad?” (In which case the answer is a firm No.)

I try to stick to half an hour of television and half an hour of iPad a day, but it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes the temptation to have my child quietly occupied while I finish work or dinner or feeding the baby is just too tempting and the half hour streeeeetches.

What I do instead is try to make sure that the content that she can access is educational, inspirational or at least not vegetative (and mostly age-appropriate). Surely there must be a difference between watching an hour of David Attenborough and an hour of Cartoon Network!

For example, we have an xBox and a Kinect. I will seldom says yes to playing controller-based xBox games but I’ll almost always say yes to playing Dance Central on the Kinect*, regardless of how much TV or iPad Rose has had in that day. Technically this is screen time, but because when playing Dance Central she is jumping around, improving her co-ordination and gross motor skills, and enhancing her rhythm and music appreciation, I don’t count it as such. The concerns about social isolation may come into play here, but since she and Mou usually play together, I’m not too worried about that at this stage.

An example of Dance Central on the Kinect

On the iPad, I have made it a habit to only include kids’ games that are educational – whether it’s a Sesame street alphabet primer, or the Kids Planet Discovery app which introduces her to geography and different cultures and ecosystems around the world. And often we will play together. Her Dad’s iPad has the more traditional hand-eye co-ordination run and jump games, and as far as possible we have limited the number of inane collect and build games.

And all of this within the context of a very active and highly diverse lifestyle.

Yes, I know, I’m totally justifying my personal parenting choices and style here. All of which is fairly irrelevant to the vast majority of you out there, so I’ll stop.

My point is simply:

  • In interpreting the research on screen time for children, I am critical of the lack of emphasis on content. I have this same issue with research on a number of technology topics where the delivery mechanism is considered more important than the content being delivered (but isn’t!) As technology becomes more and more central to every aspect of our lives, surely it is time to stop taking a technocratic approach to research and take a greater interest in the content.
  • Most of the research done to date has focused on television or traditional computer games and not on more interactive media. The research needs time to catch up with the technology. In the meantime, we need to be try and match the real world with research outcomes as best we can.

* In case you’re not familiar with it, the Kinect is the motion sensor attachment for the xBox. Dance Central allows you to stand in your living room and mimic the dance moves of the on-screen characters.

Photo copyright Mombot


The mother of two girls (Rose, 6, and Fynn, 11 months), Mombot is a feminist and human rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a fairly laid back approach to parenting if you ignore the regular rants about the proliferation of the colour pink, the lack of diversity amongst "girls' " toys, the scarcity of good role models for girls in the media etc etc etc.

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  1. You are a saint compared to me. My kids access to screens is pretty much only limited by their appetite and my own access to said screens. The Grommet has his own youtube subscription at this point ;). But they all appear to be doing fine in school. They aren’t violent or the dreaded “fat”. They still spend lots of time in imaginative play. The Schmoo (who is 9) is currently devourind Harry Potter books at an alarming rate. And even with then they hardly come close to 7 hours of TV a day.

    I’m a Gen-Xer, a member of the video game generation, the first group of kids who not only watched but interacted with their screens. I’ve been hearing this spiel all my life. And my own personal, and admittedly anecdotal experience is that these studies are heavy on correlation and light on causation. They pull together all these disparate threats, from obesity to literacy to violence to academic achievement and try to tie them all up with “screen time” whilst handwaving away all of the other potential and various origins of each problem.

    1. This is pretty much where I am too. I do know households where there is probably 7 hours of exposure because the TV is just always on. There are some weekends where we definitely hit that number for whatever reason, but that’s usually bookended by days with virtually no screentime. I’m more concerned with outcome than incremental data in this case (and as evidenced by my earlier posts ;).

  2. Like Louis, my kids’ access is also only limited to their appetite and my need for the device. I definitely think there is something to the confusion of correlation and causation; and I believe there must be a MARKED difference in the effect of games v TV. The articles I read just create more anxiety for me until I click through and realize, oh this study was about watching TV in the 60’s and I feel cheated. I guess that’s just my round about way of saying we need more current studies on the AS IS situation.

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