Is all screen time the same?

Actually, I know the answer to that question. For me, at least, the answer is unequivocally no. All screen time is definitely NOT the same.

The real question then becomes, how do I determine how much screen time is too much, when so much of what my kids do with screens feel very valuable to me? I definitely don’t feel that setting a hard limit on any kind of screen time makes sense. What algorithm, instead, should take its place?

For me, “screen time” – that terrifying mind-stealer we’re all afraid of and are determined to limit, is the television (or shows on any other kind of screen). Anything that requires ZERO interaction from my kids is, in my mind, “screen time.” We generally allow two 22 minutes shows a night (so each kid can pick one) and a movie (or 3 shows) on the weekend. I use this time to get dinner ready and generally unpack myself once we get home. I also use it to sit the fuck down for 10-15 minutes and take a break.

I’m not a big fan of this screen time, but I appreciate what it provides for me. And for my children, actually, because I know they need to unwind too. Still, I wish we were spending less time in front of the TV.

One step up, albeit a small step, from the TV are fun games on the iPad (or now my daughter’s Kindle). We never had a fun game (one that doesn’t teach or reinforce a skill and provides zero intellectual stimulation) until my son was born. Now we have quite a few. He likes LEGO Juniors and LEGO City, and he used to love the Thomas Tracks game. He is much less likely to want to play the math or literacy games his sister grew up playing. It’s frustrating, but as he’s 4-years-old and a second child (and impossible to negotiate with) I generally let it go.

My daughter has always played educational games, and while she likes to play the LEGO games with her brother, she rarely plays them by herself. But now her after school has “tech time” on Fridays (which is primarily why we got her a Kindle) and she gets to see all the vapid games other kids play. Her new obsession is Hair Salon 3, which she could play for ages.

I consider this kind of screen time the same as TV watching, but I feel a little less guilty about it because it requires interaction, creativity, decision making and even some problem solving. It can also present opportunities to deal with failure and frustration, which my 4yo especially needs. I’m actually trying to swap out one of the nightly TV shows for this kind of device time because I think it’s a little more productive and it provides a less volatile atmosphere for negotiating who gets to pick the one TV show (if they’ve gotten their pick of a game, it is easier to concede the episode-picking power).

Then there are the educational games, especially the ones that teach basic math or literacy skills. I absolutely believe my daughter has gained a great deal of number sense and literacy skill from apps we have. I think my son does too. They are also fun! I consider these games a couple of significant steps above TV time, and am trying hard to have them play these games instead of one of the regular TV shows each night. They are usually interested in them for about half of the time, which I consider a win.

In our house there is a special category of screen time, which consists of the Osmo games. All the Osmo games require manipulatives to play. You put the iPad in a base and slip a mirror over the camera so the apps can “see” what you place in front of the pad. Numbers has domino-style blocks of 1, 2 and 5 and also the numerals from 1-9. Words has all the letters. Tangrams has, well you can probably guess. Coding has command blocks and there is an entire suite that uses a white board with dry erase markers (what you draw actually becomes part of the games!) These games are super cool and require a lot of higher-level thinking. Plus you actually move things around in the real world. We don’t get these games out as much because they require set- and clean-up but once they are out, I generally let the kids play on them as long as they want.

Finally, I recently got a set of math games (based on recommendations in this post), that are actually teaching my daughter higher-level math concepts. She is currently half way through DragonBox Algebra 12+ (having finished the five levels of Algebra 5+ in one weekend) and she is learning to add and subtract integers, to multiply smaller numbers, to simplify fractions and ultimately to solve algebraic equations. While she can play this game alone, she’d rather play it with me, and I like to work with her so I can reinforce why dragging the 5 over makes the 6 on the other side become a 1 (she definitely gets this now but might not truly have understood it if she were playing alone). This game is a miracle-app, in my opinion, and frankly I will let my daughter play it for as long we can.

Any game, really, that we play together I consider to be more than “screen time.” My son loves the Osmo games but can’t really play them by himself. When we work together, though, he can create a coding sequence that is pretty impressive. He also loves to play The Room with me, and it’s incredibly the stuff he remembers and the connections he makes (my daughter is also really into all the Room games and can play them herself but much prefers to play them with us). Puzzle and problem solving games that we work on together feel like time really well spent. I even cherish the silly screen time we spend together, like when we mix songs on one of my husband’s many DJing apps and have dance parties or when we take pictures of each other (or our grumpy cat) and draw silly mustaches and top hats. Is that screen time I should be limiting?

Yes, I understand we could spend all day on our devices. And yes I appreciate the value of just reading a book (we do plenty of that here too) or building with magnatiles (also a favorite in our house). And I recognize that when we’re on screens the kids don’t have the chance to get bored and then eventually manage their boredom by making up an imaginative game to play together. Or even to get in an argument and then work it out (or not, and experience those consequences). And of course, when we’re on screens we are not outside. Being outside is so very, very important.

The screen time discussion, in our house, is centered almost completely around weekend use. Yes, I am trying to substitute one of our daily shows with apps and games–and that would be great–but we don’t have much time in the evenings to spend on screens so I’m not so worried about that (though watching no TV on the evenings would be preferable – that is a long-term goal). It’s the weekends when I worry about excessive screen time, and wonder how to measure the positives and negatives of the different games and apps.

My son and I get a lot of screen time in the mornings so we don’t wake up my husband or daughter (or the tenant, who lives directly below his bedroom). In the past I put him on a pad and went back to sleep, which I don’t feel bad about because an extra hour of sleep on the weekends is worth it to me. Now we play harder games together and I’ve come to cherish that time because we really are working together to achieve a goal. He really is learning something. And he really appreciates the special time with me. Do I consider that his “screen time for the day” and deny him the Saturday night movie?

My daughter and I played an hour of DragonBox Algebra while my son was napping this Saturday, and afterward she played some Hair Salon and other math games while I worked out. Is that yet another reason to not watch a movie?

We definitely watched three episodes of TV (so about an hour), but we also got outside first and rode our bikes to the library. And I eventually made my daughter stop playing on the pad and finish a chapter book in Spanish from the library. And while they watched the movie I cleaned up around the house. It feels like a decent amount of TV time, but sometimes I wonder…

I know that right now the screen time question is relatively benign. When my kids get older and social media becomes an important part of their lives, THAT is when the hard questions will be tackled. At the same time, I also know that the habits we are creating now will be harder and harder to break the longer we reinforce them. I want to start setting more specific limits and talking about what those limits mean and why they are in place. We can’t do that if we haven’t figured out what the different kinds of screen time mean to us (and I could write an entire post on my own screen time and how and why I should be setting limits). So much to consider…

How do you view screen time? What limits do you set (for yourself or your kids) and why?


  1. I’m pretty flexible about screen time but I definitely feel a small tinge if my daughter (almost 4) watches more than 30 minutes a day. But with her we often have days with no tv at all. She does not do anything educational, only “fun screen time”. This is mostly because I play with her ALL NIGHT almost every night and while I like it, it’s pretty intensive, and at least some days I need that 20-30 min when I just don’t deal with her (though now she wants me to watch Paw Patrol with her so we can play the episodes afterwards. I dont get that show?? Give me Octonauts any day of the week).
    With my son, I’m not really worried, although he definitely exceeds the intuitive “too much” limit some days, but he’s doing well in school, reads a lot, does sports, has friends, is generally well-behaving, stops playing when we tell him without having a fit etc. so as long as he continues this pattern of behavior, I’m not gonna give him strict limits. Also he’s really into programming, which is nice, and while I think he’s too obsessed with the multiplayer Minecraft, he seems to learn English surprisingly much from there (hmm, my English was too weak for that sentence) because he wants to communicate with others there, so that’s also good.

    1. Ah! Behavior around screen time is so important and I didn’t even touch on that! My daughter is pretty good about turning off her screen (she has a moment of initial frustration sometimes but moves past quickly). My son on the other hand… maybe we should be drastically limiting his until he can handle turning it off better. As it is now he asks for it (the TV, not the pad) all the time and it’s exhausting. Maybe we should do a week without shows and see how we all feel.

      1. When my son was younger (5ish) there were times when it seemed that his personality temporarily changed, drastically, because of playing, sometimes to the extent that his behavior was a bit scary when we asked him to put the game away. It was not like normal complaining/anger, it was like he was an addict and we were trying to take away his drug. When that happened we completely took the game away for a while and he was actually quite OK about it, I think he got scared of the situation himself!

      2. My son, also 4, is the same. Not all the time. But sometimes he flips out and it’s pretty scary. Other times he is good natured. He usually watches one show a day during the week (occasionally two) and maybe the equivalent of three shows on a weeekend (although sometimes more). I wish we were better about screen time on weekends but being out of the house all day is really exhausting and honestly, not usually that much fun. If we are home, he can definitely play independently for awhile but at some point, the tv goes on. We haven’t really done games yet mostly because I don’t know of any and our iPad is about 8 years old. He rarely ever has days with no tv at all — only if we have a very action packed day and don’t get back until bedtime. But that just about never happens.

        1. I really don’t think 3 shows on a weekend day is in any ways bad. Like I said above I also feel bad on an *emotional level* if my daughter watches more tv than a certain amount, but at the same time I know on a more cognitive level that it’s really not at all harmful to her.
          (The other night I said somewhat apologetically to my husband that our daughter is watching her third show because it started automatically when I was in the bathroom and I was too weak to stop it. He was like, “what? I think she should watch MORE tv”. Not really, but there’s something there – if we play with them and read to them etc every day, it’s not so important whether they watch 20 or 40 or 60min of tv, and it’s also important for parents to have a moment to relax).

  2. Wonderful expose on another way that parenting is harder today than when your parents were doing it and ABSOLUTELY more complex than when your grandparents did it.
    Sounds like you are doing a good job of tightrope walking the whole screen thing. I wonder how you find the ‘good’ learning apps. Please share, because I feel at a total loss, AND, I do know they are out there.
    I have seen the turn off the screen collapse and support the idea that if the child cannot cope with it then less is better… but I also know why that is so VERY hard to do. The child will say they will do it….but even 10 mins later they are unable to follow up and do it calmly. REALLY HARD.

  3. Basically, I’m too lazy to deal with screen time, so my kids get very little.

    My 3rd grader is assigned to do 15 minutes of math games on the iPad twice a week. My 2nd grader watches a few 3-minute violin videos each week (her violin teacher has a YouTube channel) so she can learn the correct bowing for a new song. Maybe once a month, I let the kids watch a movie on Netflix.

    I know there are lots of educational opportunities out there, but I just can’t motivate myself to find them or to make the time to have my kids participate.

      1. I don’t know. I mean, I would have to find a few movies to give the kids some options. Then spend 20 minutes listening to them argue about which movie to pick. Then deal with their constant bickering about whether one of them is blocking the screen or breathing too loudly or whether the movie should be paused for bathroom breaks/snacks. It’s all extremely exhausting and I just don’t have the energy.

        1. But how do you get anything done?! Do they play by themselves, or with each other? Even when my kids are doing those things, they need constant interaction. I can maybe get 30 minutes of productive time if the stars align just right, but normally I have to referee fights or help them find or do something. I don’t know how I would make dinner…

          1. Yeah, my kids don’t play together very well. As you might have guessed from my description of why I don’t let them watch more movies.

            I divide and conquer: one does homework,while the other practices violin; one reads in the living room while the other draws at the kitchen table; one helps me make dinner while the other sweeps the floor and empties the dishwasher.

            But I make super basic dinners anyway, so I don’t need all that much time

  4. Because of Isaac’s brain inflammation due to PANS, around Thanksgiving I bought the book “Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time” on Amazon and after the first chapter, had decided to do a complete electronics fast. It is written by an integrative child psychologist, and focuses on the effects that interactive electronics (iPads, phones, computers, tablets, kindles, video games, etc) have on the frontal lobe. I had NO idea that interactive electronics were so different than just watching TV, and assumed that because they were interactive they were better, but at the same time noticed that Isaac’s behavior after using the iPad or playing video games was so much worse. He wouldn’t have a problem turning it off, but afterward would act like his brain was on fire – just couldn’t control himself. Actually, what triggered even looking into the connection in the first place was us playing with a VR headset at a friend’s house, and Isaac’s complete and total meltdown/almost psychotic break once we got home that night. It was so shocking and was the first time I had ever really put 2 & 2 together for him.
    Our fast lasted for four weeks, strictly, and then we added in a family movie night once a week, although sometimes we skip a week because he doesn’t ask for it. And I have always allowed audiobooks using the Echo dot, so it’s not completely all electronics, just the ones he’d interact with/watch. I will say that his behavior has improved immensely, and the PANS symptoms have definitely improved as well. It’s no longer exacerbating his existing brain inflammation, and he’s able to concentrate better, play independently, and sleeps better.
    I don’t honestly see us going back to screens…ever…even though we were using some educational apps in our homeschooling. I think with his medical issues, it’s just too risky for him. Obviously as he grows and hits his teenage years, he’ll have to make some of these decisions for himself, and hopefully his brain will be healed by then as well.

    1. I looked into that book. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing your experience, and that book! I’m so glad thing are better now that you’ve restricted screen time.

  5. I’m pretty flexible too. I can tell when they’ve had too much mindless tv watching on a Saturday morning. It’s the time when S and I are trying to get some stuff done around the house! We also try to substitute more educational games and apps. It helps that part of my son’s “homework” is using Raz Kids and IStation.

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