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?