Is It Time To End Screen Time For Kids?

    It’s a hard time to be a parent. According to a recent Pew Research Centre study, 66% of parents said parenting is harder today than 20 years ago, with only 7% saying it is easier – and the majority cited digital technologies as the main factor. The internet is shaking things up in a million unforeseen ways, and our kids often seem to be on the front lines of this mass social experiment, themselves pushing into this new space with a zeal and a faculty an order of magnitude greater than their parents.

    But kids are running aground online in ways that their parents never even contemplated. Families are swept along by the constantly accelerating digital revolution, their kids barely staying afloat in the sea of information in which they now swim. Parents try to throw them lifelines, but the parents too are caught up in the same stream and are often fighting to catch their own breath. According to one survey, parents now fear tech more than drugs, alcohol, and sexual activity for their teens.

    I personally got to live in a quiet eddy for my son’s early years. His mother went to a Waldorf school when she was young, and she wanted to give our son the same experience. Warldorf schooling is associated with a host of vague notions to the general public, some of them deserved and some not, but one thing it is well known for is a rejection of screens. Many of the Silicon Valley CEOs who have famously banned access for their kids to the very devices they peddle have sent their offspring to Waldorf schools largely for this reason. Not coming from a Waldorf background myself, this was also the main reason I hopped aboard the Waldorf train.

    Why did I want to limit my son’s screen time in the first place? Well, there was the WHO guidance to limit screen time to nothing for ages 0-2, and to one hour a day for those 2-4 years old. There was also just the intuitive sense that kids are built for active play, that play is essential for healthy development, and that time spent passively in front of a screen is time not spent playing.

    We went further than the WHO guidelines, essentially limiting his screen time to zero until he was eight years old. How the hell did we do that? We were lucky enough to live in a bubble (in the pre-pandemic sense) of other families who shared our commitment to Waldorf schooling. Our son floated through pre-school, in small home-based local operations, and grades 1-3, in a low-budget private Waldorf school in Ottawa, in this dreamy tech-free bubble. And the approach seemed to pay off; he was a creative, self-directed powerhouse, always consumed with dozens of different projects, from tearing apart (and usually not putting back together) electronics, to dreaming up and executing novel on-farm money-making enterprises (when he was 9 years old, he earned the princely sum of more than $500 from these). Whenever we thought about enrolling him in the local public school – a tempting option for many reasons – the main obstacle was the ubiquitousness of tech there, both from the teaching side and from the kids, many of whom were living a very different reality than our son.

    Whenever we’d mention our son’s screen-free reality to other parents outside of our bubble, a wistful expression would often play across their face, and they’d say something like, “I wish we could have managed that.” I fully recognize how lucky we were to have a supportive community around us, without which these years would not have been possible. The pull of screens on all of us – especially kids – is just too strong to resist when they are within reach.

    The first cracks began to appear when even our son’s Luddite Waldorf school was forced to switch to online learning during the first year of the pandemic. Unlike many kids who struggled with home learning, the novelty of getting to interact with people through a screen made the experience an enjoyable one for him. This beachhead was accompanied by other shifts over the next couple of years: some of our bubble popped and dropped out of the Waldorf school (making ride-sharing to the city more difficult); other members of the bubble bought their kids old Nintendo game consoles. Our community support structure was crumbling around us. The biggest change came when – enrolment being close to zero for Grade 4 at the Waldorf school – we finally caved to reality and put our son into the local public school.

    At the end of his Grade 4 year, I hosted for two weeks a couple of Ukrainian refugees, a mother and son, and the 20-year-old son introduced my boy to a video game on his phone. And so that began. It’s interesting to note how the major news stories of the day – Covid and the war in Ukraine – have washed up on our family’s shore and brought tech with them.

    Our son is in Grade 5 now, and goes once a week to an afterschool drop-in at the local community centre, which consists mostly of kids playing video games. He is making more friends at school, which is good, but they are also schooling him in their reality. He complains about how he is one of only three kids in his class who don’t own a smartphone (the other two are from his former bubble whom he went to the Waldorf school with). He may be exaggerating to make a point – according to a 2021 US study, only 37% of 11-year-olds have a smartphone – but I’m sure many who don’t own them yet get to use their parents’ or older siblings’, as I now allow him to use my phone a bit.

    Kids have a strong sense of wanting to be in sync with their peers, and I know it’s hard for our son to feel like he is behind the curve on digital connectivity and pop culture. As parents, we’re coming under daily pressure to concede more ground to the internet in his life. We know we’re fighting a rear-guard action, only trying to slow the inevitable advance of the coming cyborg apocalypse. I’d estimate he currently spends an average of an hour a day on screens.

    It’s safe to say screens have become his new passion, his mind turning to them and what they offer whenever he has nothing else to occupy him. When he used to get bored, it wouldn’t take long before he found something interesting to throw himself into. Now, he seems unable to think of anything to do in idle moments other than to turn on a screen. Us adults already know that reflex well – we’re standing in line, and instead of actually thinking about something, or observing our surroundings, or – god forbid – talking to someone, we use the opportunity to check our social media feeds. This is what we call being connected.

    What do we do when something so obviously addictive gets thrown into society for the first time, with even our kids getting in on the action from increasingly young ages? It brings to mind TikTok, the fastest growing social media app ever, especially amongst Gen Z, and how it operates under different rules in China, where its parent company is based. In China, where it goes by the name Douyin, its algorithm feeds users home science experiments, museum exhibits, and patriotism and educational videos. It also limits those under 14 years old to 40 minutes a day, and kicks them off the platform from 10pm to 6am. In the West, it tends to push content more like this:

    Perhaps this is China’s way of avenging the Opium Wars.

    It’s not too surprising, then, that when 8-12 year old kids were recently surveyed about which profession they most aspire to – astronaut, musician, professional athlete, teacher, or vlogger/YouTuber – the first choice of kids in the UK and US was “vlogger/YouTuber” and their last choice was astronaut, while for kids in China it was the exact opposite. (Interestingly, though, “teacher” was the number two choice in all three countries.)

    But perhaps this survey points a way out of this quagmire. If watching videos can make a kid either want to be a social media influencer or an astronaut, how do we get them to skew more towards astronaut? Maybe screen time isn’t the issue, maybe it’s what’s on those screens that matters. Indeed, in researching this essay, I came across a number of articles questioning the value of the whole “screen time” concept (here and here and here). Screens are being used for so many things now, is it right to lump video-chatting with grandma or a family movie night together with solitary mindless scrolling? Even in the sub-category of video games, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly. Surely quality matters at least as much as quantity.

    This line of advice also recommends “not leaving your kids to their own devices“. Us parents tend to lean on screens as babysitters, seeing time our kids spend in front of screens as time when we can get stuff done. While it’s certainly fine to use that crutch sometimes, we should try when we can to actively engage in screens with our kids, helping to guide them towards more enriching content and to navigate difficulties as they arise. Video games can be quality family time when you play them with your kids.

    If the only advice we got in the past was to practice tech abstinence, that was probably about as useful as advocating for abstinence for horny teens in sex-ed class. We’re better off trying to promote safe-tech to our kids than banning it altogether. Indeed, the Canadian Paediatric Society recently updated their guidance around screens and kids, doing away with time limits for those over five, and instead encouraging meaningful screen use for kids while modelling healthy usage from parents.

    One area where research indicates hard limits should still be imposed, though, is around bedtime. It’s well-known that screens and the blue light they emit tend to have a deleterious effect on our sleep, and it’s equally well-known that sleep is essential – especially for kids – for a host of physiological and cognitive development, not to mention them being able to function like decent human beings the next day. So I think it’s totally reasonable for parents to not allow their kids to use their phones for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. I know of one parent who simply turns her wifi off at a certain time every night, and since her kids don’t have data plans, that effectively ends their internet usage at least.

    No one is saying that parents should simply remove all time limits to screen use; we’re still responsible for ensuring our kids get a healthy mix of activities in their lives and we should intervene if screens start to take over. But this more nuanced approach asks parents to consider the quality of screen time and their kids’ relationship towards it much more than a simple time metric.

    When I first set out to write this essay, I had in my mind a screed against the infiltration of tech into our kids’ lives, and imagined making a plea to parents to stop enabling it. But after reading and thinking about the issue more (and in so doing, staring at screens for many hours), I can see a way forward that doesn’t deny the existence of screens – because they aren’t going anywhere – but attempts to work with them in constructive ways. The internet is a huge force, for both good and bad, and our kids are in many ways leading the charge into this uncharted territory. We can stand with them and help them make the best of this new and powerful tool, while minimizing its many potential harms. It won’t be easy, but we have to try.


    If you like what you’ve read here and wish to subscribe to receive an email whenever I post something new, then go to the subscribe page and click on the blue subscribe button – it’s free!

    If you’d like to go a step further and support me with a paid subsciption of $30 a year, then click on the yellow subscribe button on the subscribe page. Don’t worry, this is not like choosing which coloured pill to take in The Matrix. Neither will you receive any special access, merch, or your name somehow magically inscribed by the northern lights across the sky. But you will receive the warm, fuzzy feeling of supporting my work. Thank you!

    2 thoughts on “Is It Time To End Screen Time For Kids?”

    1. A thought provoking article. You’ve changed my view of screens and kids and the ruination of the fabric of society. Somewhat a guns-don’t-kill-people debate…?

      On a technical note (warning: I’m a grammar cop), it’s “we adults” and “we parents” as the subject of a sentence. (I know, there’s one in every audience…)

    2. As usual, you present an honest history and then an updated reality of your opinions. Very well written food for thought . I am with a 9 year old who is still essentially screen free and I intend to continue to age 14 . Minus about 3 hours a week on language practice . We home school in 4 languages . I recommend changing your children’s screen time albeit video games , cartoons or YouTube or movies into a language they don’t know. I’ve been doing this now with 3 languages over the years and It is working. He speaks 3 languages fluently and 2 partly . Mostly through use of nature and science kids videos and then moving to only audio books via podcasts . Swiss German – Proper German , Spanish , and now French . If you’re going to succumb to screen time parenting may as well gift your child another language . It’s so easy !

    Comments are closed.