Ask the grumpies: Kids and screen time

Bogart asks:

What is the actual evidence on kids and screen time? Preferably broken down by age and screen-time type. Most of what I can find that seems of any quality is about childhood obesity and/or physical activity, neither of which is high on my list of concerns about my own kid.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed their recommendation.  (According to my uncle the doctor because I’m too lazy to look it up.)  They used to say NO screen time at all for kids under 2 yrs, but that was when screen time was passive, like watching a video.  Now that touchscreens, iPads, etc., have made screens much more interactive even for babies, they have said that they just don’t know how much screen time is good for little kids.  They don’t even know.

#2 (the one with the kids) doesn’t know and doesn’t particularly care (this, she suspects, is what happens if you have a second kid– it changes from, “what does the research say” to “the hell with it, mommy needs a break”).  (She does vaguely think the APA is still recommending little screen-time for babies, but they don’t even know anything about introducing food, so how would they know anything about screen time?)  She does point out the interesting work by Jesse Shapiro that finds no negative effects of tv exposure, and perhaps some positive effects for some groups.  She’s willing to go with that because Jesse Shapiro and his coauthor (who she believes just won the Clark medal) on that paper are good economists.   (A related paper on obesity points out that tv seems to be replacing sleep and other passive activities rather than more active activities in time-use studies.  They blame the rise in obesity on food intake, not energy output.)

She also notes that many for many kids, the tv stops being entertaining after a certain amount of time.  It is quite possible that these kids have an internal turn-off switch and can self-regulate.  A good reason to limit screen time if you can — so that you can save it for when you really need it.

Any members of our readership have a better answer?

30 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Kids and screen time”

  1. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I haven’t read any scientific research on the subject but I don’t mind letting my kids have some screen time. They rarely watch TV so their exposure is mainly limited to my oldest daughter’s Kindle. The games she plays are pretty cute- puzzles, drawing games, etc. We let her play with it when we’re trying to get things done or on Saturday mornings when she wakes up at 6:00 a.m.! My youngest is too busy to sit down and watch TV or play a Kindle.

  2. xykademiqz Says:

    My kids are in school/daycare till about 6 pm. Then they come home, we eat, and once their stomachs are full, the little two run around, play with each other (more like tackle, tumble, and wrestle) all the while yelling and squealing (mostly with delight). Around 7 or 7:30 they are ready to calm down a little, and that’s when we happily turn on the TV.

    The youngest watches a little, as you say, then gets bored. They indeed seem to self-regulate and would always much rather play with parents or go outside than watch anything, if given a chance. We have 3 kids and most of the time feel zero guilt about screen time: we need a break, the kids enjoy it and, as they get all sorts of other activities during the day, they too are entitled to some vegging out.

    Btw, we don’t have cable, just public TV that no one ever watches, as well as DVDs and Netflix; there are multiple (shamefully many) computers and multiple iPads, and kids play/view things on the latter most of the time.

    Btw^2, I find that, after having several kids, I have dropped feeling guilty about just about everything that has to do with raising them. There is no time or energy for that. They are healthy, safe, and well loved; they go to good preschools and schools. Other than that, we give them plenty of freedom.

  3. bogart Says:


    Our kid basically wouldn’t consume screen time until he was about 3, even if we wanted him to. Then he went through a phase of being totally obsessed with a particular cartoon series, he eventually got over that. Now it’s video games, and anything Star Wars (of which there is a lot!). My DH is (more or less, though see below) indifferent and I am not.

    My personal feeling is that until DS is someone who will disappear with a book and refuse to resurface (willingly) he needs to focus on those skills and not the video stuff. It’s not the reading (though certainly his skills there are unexceptional for his age), it’s the imagination that reading requires, that I worry screens inhibit. Not, as your post notes, on the basis of any actual evidence, but all the same.

    We’ve pretty much eschewed all portable devices of any kind, which does have the advantage of limiting the times when screen time is even available. DH and I have laptops, and when we camp (in the trailer, which is how we camp), DS gets some time playing shared games with DH on DH’s. I have a tablet and DH has a smart phone, but those are off limits, and we generally don’t use them in front of each other, either (the smart phone is something of an exception), focusing instead on, you know, talking to each other and stuff. I did let DS use the kindle app on my tablet once, but my sense was it wasn’t adding much if any value over books, so crossed “consider getting DS a Kindle” off my list for now. We may revisit that this summer when we’re travelling. I worry about it getting broken.

    And — DS has worked out that he can “sneak.” We went through a week recently (well, part of one) where he was getting up in the middle of the night to play video games. No joke, he can go to bed as per normal (~9 pm) and wake himself up at 2:30 a.m. to play video games for hours (On the one hand, I’m secretly impressed. OTOH, note to self: teenage years — yikes). This is not conducive to a well ordered family/household. Fortunately it is easy to prevent — I just have to tuck the relevant remote under my pillow, but also, serious conversations were had, and all privileges were lost for a week. It was a lovely week, as instead of organizing his life and focus (and ours, to the extent he can) around when he could next have screen time, DS became a cheerful and engaged member of our household. Bonus: I got to tell DH, “I told you so!!” And now DH is somewhat more skeptical of whether screen time is a useful thing for DS.

    So that’s where we stand. All that said, DS gets plenty (IMHO) of screen time — an hour per day on weekends, and probably nearly that much many weekdays (DH manages what goes on when I’m at work, so …). And the stuff is pervasive, as I’m sure you know — I’m not counting what he gets at school in the above, nor am I counting all the little bits that float in here and there, or the parts where DH has the TV on and DS is around.

    And yes, the stuff certainly has its place when needed as a distractor!

    (ps thank you for posting my query)
    (pps thank you for listening)

    • Rosa Says:

      when mine was 4 or 5 he started waking himself up super early to play videogames on my computer, so we put a password on it.

      He spent at least some time sitting at my desk trying to figure out the secret of the password, part of carefully writing p a s s w o r d on a piece of notepaper so he could type the ghosted word in the little password box. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t help.

  4. Ana Says:

    My kids do NOT self regulate. They would happily sit like zombies watching movies and tV all day, though they are otherwise non-stop super active kids. Then they are cranky and angry when we turn it off—my 2.5 year old has horrific tantrums when we take away the games/screen. When we were with my sister and her kids, I noticed that her daughter couldn’t sit through a Dora episode, and got up to color, play puzzles, etc… Her son sat still for about an hour, and then also got up to do something else. My two sat for 2+ hours. My older son (4.5) will wet his pants watching a movie, he is so enthralled.
    I love the break, and they are so excited to watch things or play games, but I know our family needs to set limits on these things because I could see my kids spending all day and night on screens if we let them.

    • gwinne Says:

      That’s our situation, too. I find it frightening that I have a two year old who routinely ASKS for TV, knows how to turn it on, etc. Absolute zombie in front of it. Older sister is the same way.

      Generally, we do ~30 minutes/day after school and sometimes more on weekends. The little one watches for about 15 minutes in the mornings, too, while I scramble to get things done in the kitchen. I do not have a smart phone; the big kid has a tablet but can use it instead of, not in addition to, TV, for gaming purposes.

      I *like* TV. I write about popular culture, among other things. But I really do think–not scientific, just my observation–that after a certain point the visual stimulation is just too much. My nephew, who is likely “on the spectrum,” has exposure to a device (phone, iPad, TV) almost CONSTANTLY. Not making a causal argument, but it’s really astonishing to see what happens to him…

      • OMDG Says:

        Our two year old has a limit after which she will get up and do something else, but God forbid we take it away before that limit has come. Holy lord the tantrum she will throw (esp if she is tired, aka right before bedtime). We’ve similarly had to limit her screen time because of that. I really like TV and use it to unwind, but dealing with the tantrum is NOT relaxing, so I just have to wait until she goes to bed (which is later and later these days… sigh). Right there with you, Ana.

      • OMDG Says:

        Oh yes and I forgot to mention. She’s a total zombie in front of the TV, just like your kids.

    • Rosa Says:

      Mine too, and me too for that matter.

      Sometimes I think the “i’m bored with this” self limit comes from kids getting plenty of TV time when they want it. A long time ago I lived with a household of young adults and the difference between the people who had to look at the TV when it was on and those who could ignore it was whether we had sharply limited TV (or none) as kids.

      I definitely think this with food, and unlimited food availability has worked well with our kid.

      But then sometimes I think the TV zombie thing is innate, or is from ADHD (which we also both have.)

      • bogart Says:

        I’ve tried that with my son (unlimited access), and either it doesn’t work or I needed to stick with it a lot longer than I did.

  5. Calee Says:

    I don’t have the data handy but is a great resource if you’re trying to navigate the research on kids and screen time. Also, The Joan Ganz Cooney Center does all sorts of great research on this topic
    Since my life pretty much revolves around producing content for kids to use on screens, I’m passionate about giving parents the tools to turn that so desired screen time into reading time. The research is starting to come out that non-enhanced (not gamified) ebooks are potentially better tools to promote reading comprehension and even phonic awareness in young children.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I read that study (on enhanced ebooks) and didn’t find it compelling… they found that kids spent a lot of time playing the games on the ebooks that have games and used that as if it were time spent reading and found that if you pretended time spent playing games + time spent reading on ebooks was functionally the same as time spent reading just text, then gee, kids don’t get as much reading stuff out of playing games than they do when they are just reading. But the games *aren’t* the same as reading. It’s like saying if you pretend that all time spent on the xbox (or spent cooking or riding a bike) was time spent reading that you’d see that reading a book was better for reading skills than playing the xbox (or cooking, or biking). That’s not what they’re there for– it’s not the same measure.

      So if the problem is that parents think that giving their kids a gaming system is the same as having them read, then the study is useful. But just showing that spending time playing a fishing game on the kindle doesn’t help phonemic awareness… that’s true for anything that isn’t reading.

  6. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    #2 here again:

    I had my screen time severely limited when I was a kid (but was allowed to watch as much “educational tv” and “saturday morning cartoons” as I wanted on Saturdays. (My parents had quality time together on Saturday mornings while we kids zoned out in front of the tube.) We didn’t have video games or computers etc.

    My husband, OTOH, of similar or lower SES, had unlimited access to tv and video games starting with Atari as a little kid. Often in his parent’s house there’s a tv just *on* with nobody watching it which bugs me because I have a really hard time not focusing on it instead of people. (Funny story about me not being able to pay attention to an elaborate marriage proposal…)

    We both turned out just fine, dear readers. Suggesting that any effects are on the margins. Or that possibly DH or I would have been Nobel Prize winners by now if we’d just gone the opposite route. There is some research suggesting that some video game playing does improve various skills and cognitive functions, particularly in older people.

    Re: our kids. We don’t have a TV, we do have Netflix. DC1 has had computer games limited on weeknights because they were causing problems. If they weren’t causing problems we wouldn’t have limited them. We have an Xbox and a Wii. And the latest is the ipad which DC2 is addicted to. But ze still spends a lot of time not on the ipad. Does ze spend too much time? Who knows.

    • bogart Says:

      I have a version of this conversation with my DH (who per his recounting watched endless non-stop TV as a child), and I do think it’s comparing apples to oranges (he is older than you, further dissimilarizing ;) the comparison). When he was a kid (heck, when I was a kid), there were 3 or maybe 4 channels, they did not broadcast 24/7, and they certainly did not broadcast kids’ shows 24/7. And *everything* was slower and more structured (if I may overgeneralize!). This is one of the things that drives me nuts about, e.g. Spongebob (or for that matter the more recent James Bond movies, when I’m not busy BTP) — jumping from scene to scene with no transitions (much like my students’ writing, back when I was teaching, sigh), not to mention loud noises and huge in-your-face zooms. Or Atari as compared to the Wii, for that matter — Atari left something to the imagination …

      (Tangential rant: DS and I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, and the Black Stallion, and Every. Single. Time. we discussed any of these with another adult — the story line came up, or whatever, they would say, “Oh! That was such a great movie!” Not one — not one — mentioned any one of those as a book.)

      But yes, I do get that overall I am, in ranting about all this, sweating the small stuff. Nothing to see here. Though now that you mention it, not one single Nobel prize in this household, either.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We’re really from the Super Mario Brothers generation, and Super Mario Brothers II (or was it 3? The one that let you restart after dying instead of having to go back to the beginning) isn’t that much different than modern games. And, of course, the Wii FIT is super popular whenever we’re with my sister.

        And we’re from the Disney and Nickelodeon eras (though we couldn’t afford Disney except when it first came out and was free because we were living in the test market). We’ve shown DC1 our favs from our childhood even when they come with warning labels about how they’re not appropriate for today’s youth (see: Sesame Street). DC2 though gets a lot of PBS Kids and Youtube.

        (Is it bad that I like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the 1st movie better than the book, except now I find oompa loompas terrible? (Not crazy about either version of The Black Stallion. Charlottes Web, though, gets me every time.))

      • bogart Says:

        I’ve never actually seen the Chocolate Factory movie though I have caught snatches on TV. I think I’ve seen Charlotte’s Web; I wore the book out (literally) as a child, read it over and over and over (I cried, but my son did not, when I read it to him recently). I saw the Black Stallion when it came out and loved it, but I was the age it’s for, then. I read every single one of those books as a kid (again, likely repeatedly).

        I have just hit my mom up to order the first Star Trek shows via her Netflix membership, so DS and I will be watching those together at some point. They were pretty central to my childhood, and certainly meet the requirement of being structured and slow-paced.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        DC1 enjoys original Star Trek.

      • Rosa Says:

        Kids TV now is so, so much better than when I was a kid, when it was all half hour commercials with commercials interrupting it. (Except Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which I was slightly too old for at the time, and the classic Electric Company episodes that somehow I had never seen until they came out on DVD.)

        But I really appreciated the self-limiting features of only having broadcast TV and the library. We only had to watch the same movie over and over again for a week, then it went back. And no arguing about if he could watch X episode of Y show – “Can I watch Super Why?” “No, it was on at 8, it’s over.”

      • hush Says:

        Oh how I WISH my kids would watch the original “Star Trek” with me. (sigh).

    • First Gen American Says:

      This is exactly my situation…I had very little TV time and no video games as a kid and my husband had unlimited time, so I can’t tune out the TV like my husband can and I hate having it on in the background because I’ll get sucked in no matter how dumb the plot is. He is an avid reader and outdoorsman too, so it didn’t really affect his ability to be well rounded. We’re also both healthy, smart, contributing adults in society so I don’t think it mattered either way.

      For me, I think the screen time is more concerning for the introverts in our life. My older son in introverted, my younger one is extroverted. If there was an unused IPAD and other kids in the same room as my kids, my younger one would play with the other kids in the room, my older one would sit in the corner and play video games and ignore everyone else in the room. My kids are thin and athletic, so I don’t worry about it causing obesity but I do worry about screen time retarding my older son’s social skills. I’d be curious to know if anyone else noticed the introvert/extrovert thing or if it’s just my kids that are like that.

      I remember once my MIL noticed said how well behaved a little girl was at a restaurant (ours had ants in their pants). We look over and she was playing on an ipad. He said, “that doesn’t count mom, ours would be quiet too if we let them play games all through dinner. Kids need to learn how to behave in a restaurant and interact with the other people at the table, not tune themselves out of reality.”

  7. Nicole Says:

    I let me kids (3&7) watch about 1 hour of tv a night to wind down, more on the weekends. We also get out of the house a TON. If I see behavior getting poor we go a few days without. Currently we are on a no tv week.

  8. Practical Parsimony Says:

    Okay, we did not have tv when I was a child. Then, when I was 14, we got a television. I was a voracious reader, reading the Leatherstocking Tales when I was eleven-years-old/ My children are of the generation where they was no remote. They were allowed to watch cartoons on Saturday morning until they woke me up. They were allowed to watch 30 minutes of tv each school day. In the summer, I had to chase them out of the house when they were not swimming for fun or on the swim team or playing tennis. They did learn to play in the yard and ride bikes for fun. Two are school teachers. The resisting reading, non-reader is now an English teacher. I turned off the TV and made him read Call of the Wild and he was forever changed into a child interested in reading.The one who dropped out of college has raised a brilliant cooperative child who would get out of bed when he was four, get a book, and “read” a book in bed. He learns easily and appears to not study now that he is in college and making good grades. The dropout would get up and watch the test pattern until the tv came on and remain glued there until I came in and turned off the tv. She once told my sister I had been gone for hours and she had no idea where I was. I had gone two blocks to get stamps! And told her so before I left.

    My children never watched Sesame Street because I just hated it.

    I do regret not cutting the cord on the TV. I suppose I am getting old and grumpy.

  9. Rented life Says:

    Brother and I were allowed a half hour each (when I was in like 4th grade, we were latch key kids), prior to that TV was a supervised thing. Dad frequently had on news or sports so I didn’t really sit in front of the TV much (how can people watch golf?). My brother played what felt like a lot of video games but he also played a lot of Legos. Oh he loved Bill Nye! My husband was mostly allowed to watch what his parents did–lots of crime and action things. He missed out on major stuff in our generation-Willow, Labyrinth, Sesame St etc.

    I know there are some studies linking screen time to difficultly sleeping/winding down. This is for adults and children. I’m too lazy/tired to find it (we are teething over here). I also know the “debate” on TV and violence is largely inconclusive; media does not cause violence and it’s even uncertain if it’s desensitizes if you actually look at the whole body of literature and not just the few studies that always get referenced.

    All that said, we will probably limit screen time. One, I am not a fan of leaving Disney or any other kids programming on all the time, as many other parents my age do. No thanks. For another, I don’t do well with it as background noise. Lastly, we know a few kids with unlimited screen time and anecdotally, it does seem to correlate with language/vocab problems. That’s such a small sample, and could very well be the type of program and games they have access to, but for now, that seems to be our agreed on approach.

    • Rosa Says:

      as mine gets older I worry more about the narratives of violence in his books and comics than from the TV. It seems like most of the books he likes are “one or a few good kids fight the entire world in which when anyone does anything bad it’s because they are bad people who should be defeated.” That’s not a very helpful social narrative in real life.

  10. xykademiqz Says:

    Hm. I can’t say I am surprised, but it seems like the comments overwhelmingly lean towards “screen time = evil.”

  11. Liz Says:

    My parents bought a color television specifically for us chiddlins because they thought that learning colors on a B&W t.v. might confuse us. They also would occasionally connect our black and green computer up to that t.v. so we could play with the paint game in colors. I will say that I could be quite a “zombie” in front of a t.v., but my dad realized that I was simply absorbing All of the Information. I basically learned to play baseball from the televised games… and I am a Damn Fine Player, if I do say so myself. I guess it just depends for me on the topic: some I learn best from books/written sources, some I learn best from other people including lectures, mentoring, and videos/tv.

    I think a mix of sources (for entertainment and educational purposes) seems ideal. Didn’t parents at the turn of the 20th complain about children listening to too much radio drama?

  12. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    When I was a little kidde, I religiously watched the Love Boat and then Fantasy Island every Saturday night.

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