There is a truth universally acknowledged that kids are addicted to two terrible things: sugar and screens. While I don’t purport to be a nutritionist, I can speak to the screen time issue with some authority: I’m a former kid who arguably had “too much screen time,” now an executive of a streaming services company, and a parent of three. At Minno, our chief driver is to help families experience Jesus every day through media in their homes. We care strongly about children and families, so we’ve dug deep into the research to learn how media impacts kids. And some of what we’ve learned might surprise you.
Parents have internalized the belief that screen time is no better for kids than candy. But research shows that nuance is critical when evaluating the true value of screen time. The average child spends seven hours each day with media, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And while that statistic makes most parents wince, it’s also a reminder that screens are here to stay. Media is here to stay. Technology is here to stay. Our job as parents is to determine how to integrate these tools into our children’s lives in a healthy, wise way. Media and screens are tools. And when these tools are paired with thoughtful strategies and boundaries, it can result in growth, creation, connection, and learning.
While research does not suggest that there are benefits to screen time for the under two set, as children enter preschool, there are clear ways that parents can maximize the positive effects of screen time. Between the ages of two and five, children benefit greatly from watching high quality entertainment together with caregivers while talking through the program. According to research conducted by the Child Mind Institute, watching TV together with parents can be meaningful and cognitively beneficial for young children.
Beyond that, from age 5 to 8, research shows that most kids self-select what they are going to watch, without any input from parents, so screen time becomes an increasingly isolated activity. Content is either chosen by the kid without parental involvement or, even worse, is presented to them through autoplay or “suggested” videos on the platform or from channels the child follows. At this stage, the value of screen time is largely influenced and dependent on us. Parents can only expect better from screen time when we do better ourselves. We need to know what our kids are watching. We need to set clear boundaries and limits for our children. Just as kids know how far they can go when playing outside, they also need to know where the boundaries are online.
In our home, we believe strongly in making screen time a shared family event. Each Friday we have pizza and movie nights. These special evenings facilitate conversations that otherwise might never happen. Each week this ritual gives me an opportunity as a dad to relate to my kids, rather than simply manage them. This shared viewing experience gives us a chance to talk about movies and TV shows and the values they represent. We process the world together in a way that might otherwise be much more difficult.
Nothing impacts human beings like great stories. Screen time can be a vehicle for those transformative moments with our kids where ideas aren’t just spoken about, but absorbed through story and discussion. Rituals and habits help foster opportunities to connect and relate. I’m a better, more intentional parent with rituals like this in place; I have far less success when I’m winging it. Rituals like this can create moments that are wins for you as a parent and wins for your kids.
As parents we like binary rules. Inside is bad. Outside is good. TV is bad. Books are good. But the truth is, when it comes to technology there is a lot of nuance at play. Screen time can look like learning how to code or harmonizing with friends on an app. It can also look like binge watching Netflix or playing a violent video game. It can be an online community that helps your daughter feel less alone as she connects with other teens who love bluegrass music or Japanese culture or it can look like feeling left out of the latest get together and online bullying.
An important practice to develop with your children is not just setting and enforcing boundaries but talking with them about agreed boundaries. I’ve been shocked on numerous occasions when my girls have had great insights on their issues with screens and have expressed a desire to work together on what’s best for them. I remember a conversation I had with my middle schooler. She told me “I think I’m getting too much screen time. I feel bad after I’m on” so she and I talked about appropriate limits. It’s important to give kids agency, letting them be a part of determining boundaries around technology. Collaborate on a shared family technology manifesto.
For me, it started with video games. As a kid, video games got me curious about computing. Computing got me accepted into the Naval Academy where I got a degree in computer science. That curiosity as a child, combined with computers and arguably spending too much time on screens, led to a career that included working at Amazon and founding a company.
Our job as Christian parents is to raise humans who will one day thoughtfully navigate the digital world on their own. There is no better time than now to collaborate with them to cultivate healthy patterns and determine healthy ways to approach technology. A screen time free-for-all is not a good idea. And completely outlawing screens in your home is also not the answer as you seek to prepare your kids for the future.
Having these discussions with your children now teaches them to reflect on their screen time and develop an internal compass about what’s good and bad. It also allows them to learn how to develop shared convictions and guidelines that they can share with you versus feeling like you are just placing limits on them. Remember, we’re not raising kids, we’re raising adults. A thoughtful, intentional approach to screen time will set them up for a more successful future.