Can limiting “screen time” HURT our kids?

Last week I attended the Rethinking Everything Conference and was fortunate to see Dr.Peter Gray speak.  It was a highlight of the conference for me since I have enjoyed his Blog on Psychology Today for a while now.

I also highly recommend his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.KidsUsingiPad

Ever since the conference, something he said about limiting screen time has stuck in my head.  I wanted to share it since there seems to be such a push in “mainstream” parenting advice to limit children’s time in front of the various screens we now have in our homes.

Dr. Gray talked about hunter-gatherer societies and compared the way children learn in these societies with the way they learn in Sudbury Schools and in Unschooling.  In both environments children are free to play almost all the time.  Gray said that in these environments there is an “extraordinary indulgence” and trust in children ages 4 and up.  Kids choose how to spend their days and often choose to play with the tools that adults in their respective societies use.  They pretend scenarios that they see in the adult culture.  Through their (mostly unsupervised) play in mixed age groups, they are able to practice and learn many of the important skills that they will need in adulthood, from interpersonal and relationship skills to problem solving and technical skills (using the tools of their society).

Dr. Gray said, (and I’m paraphrasing from my notes) “It’s no wonder that the children in our society have a strong drive to ‘play’ on devices with screens.  Screens are tools in our society.  Parents often ask me if I recommend that they limit ‘screen time’ for their children, and I say no – limiting screen time in our culture would be like limiting ‘bow & arrow time’ for a child in a hunter-gatherer society.”

This struck me so deeply.  In the past few years I have embraced (almost fully) unlimited screen time for my 3 children, but occasionally I wonder if I “should” work harder to re-direct their attention or encourage other activities when I’m feeling like they are using screen devices too much.

I fully appreciate all the advantages of trusting our kids to make their own choices, but have worried that there might be some deleterious physical or psychological effects from using the screens.  I can see many ways that activities using screens will prepare kids for the future, but I still had that nagging doubt that resulted from always hearing about the “latest study” on screen time and ADHD or sleep disorders.

Dr. Gray’s point showed me yet another way that imposing my agenda (based on fear or influence from society) could possibly hold my kids back.  I accept without reservation the idea that trusting my children to choose how they spend their time will give my kids the gifts of self-confidence, self-regulation and trusting themselves fully, but I sometimes felt conflicted in putting this theory into practice and always honoring their choices when it came to “screen time”.

I see now that by limiting my kids’ opportunities to fully explore activities they enjoy because screens are involved, I could not only undermine their self-confidence and self-trust, but could be thwarting some learning that is preparing my child for the future.  After all there is no way to know what skills and knowledge will be useful 20 years from now, but if they continue to practice activities that utilize the tools of our society as society and technology changes, they will always be “proficient” in the current technologies and will be well placed to make the leap to the next level of advances.

I will still continue to provide opportunities for my kids to get outside, connect with nature and partake in social and other activities that don’t involve screens.  I do think balance in our activities and connection to nature is VERY important for all human beings.   But I also appreciate deeply Dr. Gray’s perspective which has quieted those nagging doubts and supported my instinct to allow my children to learn freely in the ways they choose.

Invitation to Share:
I believe that there is no ONE correct way to raise or educate children.  We each have to find what works best for our children individually and for our families as a whole.  My experience is likely to be different from yours and I believe that in sharing our experiences we can help each other find the way that fits our families’ needs best.  Please share your own observations and experiences on “screen time” with your children in the comments below.
(Or click the comment bubble at the top if you’re viewing this on the Home page.)


11 thoughts on “Can limiting “screen time” HURT our kids?

  1. this would depend . . . if the family lifestyle is jacked in via ipod/ipad/computer/tv/dvd/online movies/video games/cell phone/etc. etc., then it would be ludicrous to do anything but keep screen time open; after all children model themselves on the people they are most intimately around (aka family), and how they could be expected to learn a different way than what they are primarily exposed to is hard to imagine!! so really i think that if we want our children to limit screen time, then we have to show them our own limited screen exposure, and then it falls tidily into place (right?) . . . ..
    as an example of our family and screen time, we have a laptop and that is all, no tv, satellite, cell phone, etc. etc., and my husband and i use it to email/shop/blog/post comments like this one. so far out of our four children only the eldest (10) has shown any interest in using the laptop. here’s what she does on it: type into word the story she’s handwritten in a 5 subject notebook. the story is not yet over, she’s been writing since march. but she wants to get it onto the computer to edit as she goes along. she also looks at the library catalog of books, finds the meanings of words, looks up recipes she wants us to try out, and probably googles other things she’s interested in too . . . . she spends half the day writing, and the rest of it gathering eggs, running, reading, scooting, and typing in word. do i limit any of it? no even though sometimes to me it looks like she writes/reads too much, but whatever i say, it might be too much for me, but obviously she’s driven to it. remains to be seen what comes of it all, that’s the great challenge for me as a parent, the mystery of it, the unfolding, the discovery.
    anyway, screen time/reading time/any time . . . . so much of it depends on so much else, is there really a one size fits all for every family/child? and while it’s wonderful to provide opportunities for learning, and theoretically it makes sense on every intellectual level, in practice what i’ve noticed is if we are not providing opportunities for ourselves, thereby showing that we too seek out new experiences/etc., then it ends up to no avail so to speak. if we want our children to learn, then we must be learning right alongside of them, growing, changing, seeking, questioning, curious, eyes wide open . . .yet miraculously constant!!!

  2. when our children were younger, we used generous limits — plenty of time to do the things they want to do (several hours per day), but still a portion of the day when we weren’t using screens as entertainment (we still used them for research, writing, editing photos and music, etc.). as they’ve gotten older, they’ve segued into being entirely in charge of their own day — but they have experienced balance, so they know what it feels like. when things get off-kilter, they recognize it.

  3. Wow. I have thought about this a lot too. We have always let our kids have as much screen time as they choose. Am I always happy about their choices? No….but we have always been able to talk about it. Usually it is about my fear of something that might happen in the far off future. The scenarios have not proven true, by the way. My college son and his girlfriend don’t even have cable. I also have not severely limited the content of what my children watch. GASP. This is not a popular stance in some of the circles I am a part of. I have been told by parents that their children cannot watch TV shows because it gives them nightmares, or that they know that their child will absolutely imitate violence or profanity. I get it. Weirdly enough one show that is pretty “parent approved” gave my child nightmares. It was rated PG on National Geographic channel. You just never know. South Park has been a favorite at my house for years. In fact, I hear the theme music on Comedy Central as I type. I’ll admit it is over the top, but some of the best discussions I have had with my kids have come from laughing and answering questions about South Park. This is my number one credential for Mom of the Year. “She let her preteens watch South Park…” lol.

  4. This is an incredible post. I wish I would have connected with you for our homeschool blog carnival. We talked about #mmorpg and online games. I will put a link to our carnival in the website box so you can read everybody’s post.

    I taught my son to read and to write playing wizard 101. Sometimes, I look at him playing and get bored myself – and have to say – get off the computer before MY head explodes from boredom.


    With my son, I need to limit his screen time – and I do. With my daughter, no problem. If I didn’t limit his screen time, he wouldn’t partake in other activities that we offer. I think it’s important to have a balance.

    Thanks so much for linking up with us at the homeschool link up. It’s so nice to have you and see such great posts to ponder – as I help my children on this learning adventure. I do hope you come back and link-up again!

  5. Pingback: Starcat’s Favorites: Settle In… | Starcat's Corner

  6. The comment limiting screen time would be like limiting bow and arrow is just plain ridiculous. You are not feeding your family or yourself by using a screen. Likewise, YOUNG children were not given bows and arrows as toddlers. They were allowed to play and explore and did not learn to hunt or fish until in their teens.

    Parents today are allowing their toddlers to use a screen for the entire time they are awake. This in turn is harming the children’s ability to self-soothe, self-stimulate, and self-control. They want instant gratification because they get everything handed to them via screens. I’m sorry but on this I will have to disagree, screen time is not a NEEDED thing for children. It does not harm them in the least to have limits set. And it does in fact teach them that they can’t always be on the screen.

    My teenagers all have ipads, cells, and pc’s, they also are NOT allowed to be on the 24/7. They cannot use them at the dining room table, they cannot use them if their school work is not completed, and I do not hesitate from taking them away should they bring home failing grades. My youngest is home-educated due to his special needs.

    I tried to do the unschooling with him and allow him to set his own day. What wound up happening is he sat his behind on the couch and didn’t move for days. Just let the tv be there, playing tv shows some of which were NOT acceptable for a then 9 year old, and played video games. He is one of those children who resist learning, and has no initiative to do anything other than sit on the couch. So if I didn’t limit screen time for him, he would do nothing, learn nothing, and continue to slip into the place in life where he would be a dole bludger since he still cannot do basic skills for himself at 10. So in our home screen time is limited and trust me when I say it has not done any harm to any of my children ranging in ages from 10 to 23.

    And like I said the one has nothing to do with bows and arrows of days of old, because children were allowed to be children. Now we are raising them to be computer literate before they can even wipe their own behinds. Not a step forward when children are so addicted to the screens that they throw fits if you take them away. I don’t have that issue in my home, but I know people who take screens away have that issue.

    I am still trying to get over the concept of limiting screen time being the same as limiting bow and arrow time, and I am just astounded at someone making that comparison, they obviously have no clue how societies of old worked, or they could never come up with such an outrageous claim.

  7. I had unlimited screen time growing up, as long as my schoolwork was done. I still devoted hours on end to books and playing with toys. Then I grew up to be a photographer with a real knack for the more technical aspects. I’m able to set up, repair and use my computer with ease and have no trouble picking up new software. The same is true with my camera. It’s a computer and takes some level of computer knowledge to really use to its fullest.
    Limiting screen time, specifically computers, was pretty outrageous in my home because my dad builds computers. I learned letters, numbers and colors on Microsoft DOS and by 5th grade was typing my homework in half the time it took to write by hand.
    My son is growing up in a house where technology is essential. It’s a learning tool for him. I use my computer and iPad for my business. Others around him are using devices to answer emails, research and do any number of other things. I don’t set limits. If I want him to walk away from screens, all I have to do is offer something more interesting to do. He chooses to spend the majority of his day with other things. He’d much rather “wash” the dishes and get water everywhere than watch tv.

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