For my kids how much screen time is too much?
Dan Riskin shares what he learned about kids and screen time, and how he pivoted during the global pandemic
"How many of you have had a fight with your kids over how much time they spend on their devices?" When child psychiatrist Michael Cheng puts this question to a crowd of parents in an Ottawa school gym, almost every hand goes up in the air — mine included. It's March 2020, just days before lockdown. But despite our fear of the looming coronavirus, the room is packed.
We are all desperate for Cheng's advice. We know digital devices aren't great for our kids, but how much is too much? And since we're already battling with our kids over screen time, what can we do about it?
I've been chasing answers to these questions for months.
Managing screen time as a scientist and a dad
My wife and I are both scientists. We have three young kids, all still in elementary school. We're doing our best to keep their screen time to a minimum, but sometimes that's a challenge. We limit it to one hour a day, on weekends, for each kid. But we don't know how that compares to the rules in other homes, and more importantly, we don't know if even those few hours are causing irreparable damage to our kids' development.
My kids are always pleading for "just five more minutes." But if I give in and let them have 15 or even 30 minutes extra, that bonus time inevitably ends with even more pleading — it never stops!
That's why I jumped at the chance to appear in Kids vs. Screens, a documentary from The Nature of Things. I knew I'd get science-based answers from top experts in child development, pediatrics and mental health. I also hoped to get some tips to make me a better dad and help other parents looking for the same answers.
The research on kids and screen time is still quite new
All the scientists I met stressed the same message: it's not the screens that cause problems; it's the missed opportunities — what kids could or should be doing with that time instead of being glued to a device. It's the lack of reading, the lack of play, the lack of exercise and, perhaps most importantly, the lack of social interaction. Kids' brains are built to extract a ton of information from the world around them, and screens just don't compare to real life.
Because smartphones and tablets have only been around for a short time, the research on kids and screen time is still quite new. But researchers have already made headway on some fundamental questions. If a bedtime story is in a book or on a screen, does that matter? (Yes.) If you take screen time away to punish bad behaviour, will your child end up watching less? (No. In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen.)
But scientists don't have all the answers. I met with teachers, parents and, most importantly, kids themselves, and those conversations gave me a deeper understanding of how screen time is changing childhood.
The problems caused by too much screen time get more complex as kids get older, once they latch onto social media and video games, and go beyond simply missing out on other activities. I spent time with tweens and teens who were honest and generous as they shared their experiences involving screens, addiction and mental health.
Some parents offered smart strategies that worked for them in managing their kids' screen time.
The pandemic threw all the rules out the window
But just as my wife and I were starting to chart a way forward based on everything I'd learned, COVID-19 hit. All of a sudden, for families around the world, screens became a lifeline — for work, for school, to combat boredom and to connect with one another.
Parents who need to get work done — or just need to put dinner on the table — were leaning on screens for child care much more than they had before. My wife and I sometimes found ourselves putting the kids in front of a movie, then scrambling to meet our deadlines.
University of Guelph researcher Jess Haines says parents shouldn't be too hard on themselves during this time.
When I spoke with Michael Cheng, the child psychiatrist who spoke in the gym, I realized we're all wrestling with parenting during the pandemic.
Kids vs. Screens tells us a lot about the impact of technology on our kids, and I hope it helps parents get a sense of control when it comes to managing their kids' screen time. But perhaps most importantly, I hope families who watch Kids vs. Screens will be able to feel a lot less guilt.
Watch Kids vs. Screens on The Nature of Things.
Dan Riskin, PhD, is a biologist, science journalist and author. He is best known as the former host of Daily Planet on Discovery, and as the author of the bestselling book Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You.