What is screentime?

Children now grow up surrounded by a plethora of screens. The access and abundance of these devices, and the pipelines they provide to digital content may be concerning to adults. It is important to note that they also may be a necessary part of our networked society.

One of the ways we discuss and describe this is by labeling it as “screentime.” Let’s take a look at the topic of screentime, and think about its role in our lives…and the lives of our children.

Origin of screentime

The topic of screentime initially gained traction in 1999, when the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that parents avoid smartphone, tablet, computer & TV use for children under two. These guidelines also suggested limiting use to no more than two hours for children over two, while adding hours as kids mature.

Abundance of screens, and questions or concerns about screentime may be dependent on a variety of factors, but children in the most developed countries are some of the most frequent users of these digital devices.

Current views of screentime

The AAP slightly relaxed these guidelines somewhat in 2016, although the core idea of screen time remains largely unchanged. This “relaxed” version of screentime made room for an expansion of screens to include positive digital media use & family media consumption habits.

The 2016 AAP guidelines suggest avoiding use of screen media other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months. The guidelines suggest children 18–24 months of age can view digital media of high-quality programming. The guidelines suggest children aged 2 to 5 should be limited to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming. Finally, children aged 6 and older should have consistent limits placed on the time & types of media consumed.

It is important to note that research suggests that less than half of the time spent in front of screens by children aged 2–10 is spent consuming content that is educational in nature.

In all cases, the AAP recommends co-viewing of content and subsequent discussions between children and parents or guardians to help children understand what they are viewing.

The AAP also recommends paying attention to make sure screen use does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

Remaining questions about screentime

General rules & “limits” on screentime definitely make it easier to understand, but there are still major limitations to our understanding of screentime. Despite the allure of these easy-to-follow rules, screentime recommendations have drawn increasing criticism from a wide range of experts.

It is also important to note that as our media and communication practices have changed, our thinking about screentime has not kept up with the times. Adults also need to consider their own relationship with screentime, as well as the examples we set for children.

Finally, conversations about screentime assume all experiences are equally negative for kids and that this is replacing positive offline activities. There may be many kinds of positive, interactive media experiences that connect individuals. Discussions about screentime should be held with youth, and focus on more than just setting limits.

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About the author

Ian O'Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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