Through the Looking Glass


What is screen time anymore, anyway?

(No…seriously. If you have a good handle on this, please contact me. But read on before you answer.)

I know the simplistic, medical perspective: time spent staring at screens is neither active play nor imaginative play. I get it. Do I think the Collective should spend six hours a day staring at anything? No. But the further along we go, the more the lines begin to blur, and the more convoluted I’m finding screen-time rules to become.

Just to toss out the dog’s breakfast of issues we’re contending with: is a Kindle the same as a book? Does a book simulate screen time, or is the imaginative component of reading a sufficient stand-in for ‘imaginative play?’ What about interactive video games, then? And, within that category, is Mr. Crab in the same category as The Room? What if they’ll work up a frothing sweat playing Kinect Sports or Just Dance, but I find them quietly drawing with chalk if I send them outside?

What about board games turned into iPad games? One thing we worry about video games is the isolating effects of constant, solo, immersive time. So if I come across them playing Monopoly on the iPad – and Monopoly, like Ticket to Ride and Scrabble and Small World and Risk, are just better-executed, more fun games on the iPad – am I supposed to call those proceedings to a halt as ‘screen time?’

And then there’s the even more convoluted category of consumption versus creation. Where, for instance, does writing fall on the ‘screen time’ continuum? What about coding? If coding and writing are both creation, does that equate video-game time with reading as consumption? Do I need some sort of insane ratio system for consumption time versus creation time?

The reality is that nothing is cut and dried any more when it comes to allocating and monitoring screen time, because what kids are doing on those screens is very different – sometimes active, sometimes passive, sometimes creating, sometimes consuming. Nor is it really a viable option to expect kids to play outside for the full balance of their free time. My kids love a bike ride, or an afternoon playing in the pool, as much as the next kid, but it’s not realistic to think that they’re going to spend the entirety of their days in those activities. They love to read, to come up with new, imaginative play worlds, to nap by the fire.

Moreover, what am I telling them about how screens are going to integrate into their adult lives by centrifuging out ‘screen time’ as kids? I can’t count the times I’ve seen the person next to me at the gym reading on a Kindle or an iPad while exercising, and tech like Google Glass is only going to further integrate the concept of the screen into their everyday lives. We live in a connected, data-driven world, and while it’s fun to unplug from that world for periods of time,  it’s tough to leave that world on a permanent or even semi-permanent basis.

When many of us were kids, screen time was an easy issue for our parents to manage; it came down to “turn off the TV and go outside.” But increasingly, as parents in 2014, we find ourselves stopping short to consider the circumstances involved in screen time. I don’t have any easy answers on this front, and I suspect many of us share the same question: with screens involved in nearly everything we do and nearly everywhere we go, is it even possible – or desirable – to police this concept anymore?

I find it easiest to subscribe to the Let’s Move! standard of sixty active minutes per day. There have been many, many days we’ve started with 60 as our baseline and gone on to 120 and then 180, and those are good days. But the days they’ve come home exhausted from a hike or a tennis match and proceeded to invent a society of sentient cats in the basement, or collaborated on writing a Doctor Who script, are good days too. And so I come back to a saying that’s helped our family in virtually every area of our lives: everything in moderation, including moderation. 

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa on January 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Right now my kids are playing Minecraft with a friend in our home, along with virtual friends on a server. While at first I was worried about too much ‘screen time’, I reflected back on what we, as kids, did during the 70s and 80s while we were ‘unplugged’ and kicked outside. We hung with our friends, doing not much, and thrill-seeking in ways that make me cringe now. It’s not so bad that our kids get their adrenaline-fix playing in a virtual world, rather than trying smoking, shoplifting, sneaking a peek at the adult magazines in Woolworth’s and crawling under trains parked in the train yard. (And yes, I was a ‘good kid’ who grew up to be a lawyer, lol.)


  2. I read this on my iPad on the cross-trainer in the gym. 😉 (Meanwhile my children were at home, excitedly embarking on a Minecraft mod design course.)

    You make some great points and distinctions, echoing many conversations my husband and I have had (though more articulately than either of us could have managed in writing!).

    I love the Let’s Move 60 active minutes idea – it’s nice and simple and addresses my main concern about “screen time”. My 8 year old son has proprioceptive and vestibular processing issues and emotional regulation challenges. He needs exercise and movement but can’t participate in group sports. He does wonderful things with screens and is as skinny as a rake (or a typical 8 year old boy) but I’m conscious that at his age he needs to be more active. After reading your post I’ve chatted with him about “gamifying” the 60 active minutes idea. He’s looking forward to getting his pedometer.
    Thank you!


  3. I love this, so many people are just unwilling to accept that times are changing and things are not going to stay the same. excellent.


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