How Much Screen Time Should Kids Have?

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What was your childhood like?

Screens (beyond the television) played a pervasive part in my upbringing. We were one of the first families to have a set-top video game platform (first Pong, then Atari 2600). We had a personal computer long before anyone knew what to do them. My brothers and I would spend countless hours tag-teaming the programming code of a clown bouncing up and down from the magazine of Compute, only to spend many more hours looking for typo and trying to de-bug our failed attempts. I was once sent home from school, because I had written a book report and printed it up on a dot matrix printer, instead of writing it by hand. The teacher said that they couldn’t be sure I had written it, because it was printed by a primitive home printer and not in my own handwriting. With all of that screen time, I still wasted countless hours watching cartoons and television… and playing video games. Looking back, those screens anesthetized my thinking. Time that should have been spent reading, writing, drawing or whatever. Instead, I sat there. Staring. Into the glow of the tubes. Sure, the video games may have helped with some hand-eye coordination, but the technology was still nascent.

What about now?

Video games look real. The better video games require strategy, thinking, leadership skills, communications skills and more. Few people just sit and stare at their iPad, most are deeply engaged, creating, sharing and curating. Still, when we think about smartphones, tablets and kids, we let our dogma creep in. It’s hard to read the MediaPost news item, Kids Using Tablets, Apps More, and not feel like we may be doing some kind of damage to the future generations due to the massive growth in their usage of these devices. From the article: "According to research from The NPD Group, nearly 80% of parents who have children between the ages of 2 and 14 have some type of mobile device (such as a cell phone, smartphone or tablet) – a jump of 16% over the previous year. In 2012, after conducting its first study looking at kids and apps, fewer than half the families surveyed had smart devices, and only about a third of children had used a tablet or smartphone. This year, 51% of children had used a smartphone or tablet, and furthermore, nearly 40% of these kids were considered a primary user of these devices."

Is this good news or bad news?

This week, Google hosted their invite-only event Google Zeitgeist in Phoenix, Arizona. During a session titled, Dare To Challenge, Campbell Brown (CNN and NBC News) asked Joel Klein (CEO of Amplify and former New York City School Chancellor) about kids, screens and constant connectivity. It’s a precarious issue with many different value-based thoughts along with disparate research about whether or not it’s good for kids to be in front of screens as much as they are. His comments were somewhat surprising, intensely pragmatic and very raw: "What is the kid doing on the screen? That’s what is important." Yes, kids must learn how to ride a bike, speak a different language, have good diction and a proper handwriting style, but these are no longer dumb screens pushing asinine content out there (granted, there is plenty of that too, online), but the screen when used properly is a tool that can unfurl a level of creativity and curiosity that is, without question, something most of us could have never imagined having access to. It is a three-dimensional library – text, images, audio and video – that gives us access to some of the smartest people and skills in the world. In fact, some of the best apps for young people will help them learn how to ride a bike, speak a different language, understand proper diction and develop a better handwriting style.

Yes, these connected devices can help us future-proof education like nothing we have seen to date.

Apps that facilitate learning, platforms like Khan Academy to better understand a myriad of concepts taught in school that some teachers struggle to teach and beyond are powerful ways for kids to learn more. It’s easy to to get sidelined by a random BuzzFeed piece on Two Photos Of A Bunny Taking Care Of Mini Pigs That Will Instantly Put You In A Better Mood Unless You Don’t Have A Soul or a YouTube video of cats chasing laser pointers, but that would be missing the point. If you were a parent in the seventies or eighties and you allowed your children to watch TV, you were using the TV as a cheap babysitter. The better parents would – at the very least – encourage these kids to watch something educational, but most of the programming lacked any sort of true depth and interaction. What we quickly realize is that Klein is right. Tablets and smartphones (or whatever wearable technology these devices of today evolve into for these younger generations) will be their notebooks, pens, communication channel, publishing platform, classroom and more. This doesn’t mean that we need kids today with their noses constantly buried into these screens, but it does mean that we all need to do a much better job of understanding that screens are no longer the things we use to waste time and take our collective minds off of our day-to-day lives. These screens have come alive, and a child’s ability to understand this, work with them and – ultimately – use them to create something is going to be a key indicator of their ability to be successful in life.

The diet answer.

Whether it’s a need to lose weight, quit a bad habit or start exercising, everything is about moderation. This includes kids and screens. The challenge is this: what adults do you know that are able to keep the screens at bay? Not for their children, but for themselves. Look around. Restaurants, bars, the middle of meetings, family functions and more. Adults are terrible managers when it comes to their own exposure to screens, so it should come as no surprise that kids – from a younger and younger age – have this innate desire to have a screen in front of them. If we are ever to have moderation, it is the adults that need to lead by example. If we are ever to have kids that will benefit from screens, instead of wasting their time on it, it is the adults who will have to do a better job of figuring out ways to turn these devices from a time killer into an idea generator. Technology has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, we need to ensure that we do a better job of showing these young people, the potential and not the waste.

Klein is right: this isn’t about how much time kids spend with screens, it’s about what’s on the screen. So, what’s on your screen?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Hi Joel: Excellent topic. Thoroughly enjoyed your talk at CMW last week.
    This is a topic I can get raw about fairly quickly… mostly because I have seen this stuff play out with kids. My oldest is 17, my youngest are 5 (twins). I agree with your point, but think precious few are the kids going online to watch videos on Khan Academy. In theory, yes of course high-quality screen time is a good thing. But it describes such a tiny slice of kid screen watching. For that reason, I impose pretty harsh limits in my home. 1 hour for teenagers on weekends. None except homework on weekdays. Exceptions made for true quality screen time (e.g. Khan Academy) and family TV time (appx 1 hour weekday evenings, a bit more on weekend evenings). I know… I sound like a dictator. Just feel strongly kids needs limits… and clarity is better.
    The part where I get raw goes like this: My 13 year old son’s friends are glued to their screens. Which means he has a tough time finding kids to hang out with on a weekend because they are playing video games all day. I’ve been reading Alexis Ohanian’s (reddit) biography on Tim Ferriss’s blog this week and for someone like Alexis, screen time was an incredible outlet to creativity and growth. I don’t think that’s true of 99% of kids.
    Thanks for starting the discussion.

  2. Great post, and an evergreen topic in that neither kids nor the internet are going away. It feels like a tug of war, but one in which neither side can (nor perhaps should) win.
    As a parent, if I try to restrict too much then my son will by definition push back and I’ve lost all authority. If I do nothing, there’s a chance the addictive qualities of surfing the net will consume my son.
    Each family will have to sort it out, and its a moving target.
    In our household, the rules are that my teenage son needs to be thriving as a person, good grades in school, take occasional healthy breaks from computing, and especially during the weekend must have at least half his time on the computer be “challenging” as opposed to mindless/escapism. With these, then I’m in my comfort zone, maybe … its a moving target.

  3. Clare – I’m similar to you. I (according to my kids) restrict my kids’ screen time much more than their friends’ parents. But I hate seeing kids sitting around playing videogames when it’s beautiful outside. We watch tv as a family often but it’s the videogames that get to me. And the ‘but EVERYONE else’s parents let them do as much screens as they want!’ that comes from my kids’ mouths (my sons are 14 & 12 and my daughter, who rarely does screens, is 10). My kids think their friends are so lucky bc the other parents ‘don’t care’how much their kids are in front of screens. Just a source of contention in our house on almost a daily basis. Trying to do, what my husband and I feel is, the right thing to do but still get viewed as too tough. Here’s hoping they appreciate these rules sooner than later. It’s nice to know we’re not alone in this struggle.

  4. Scott – I love your reply. I think I may use some of your suggestions bc screens have too much power in our house. My oldest uses his computer for architectural-type design programmes but even that time in front of his computer bothered me. I think I need to let up a bit as long as my son balances time outside, socializing etc. it has come quite a debate topic lately in our home. Thanks for your comment. It really helped.

  5. La – Rouche, when his own capacity for even the most
    “unpredictably” superlative forms of “waffling” perhaps becomes no less “circumstantially clear” to him, although “perhaps” the analogy to a chameleon would be “somewhat” better.
    FROM REGISTRATION IS AVAILABLE. It is a learning process, so go out
    and experiment.

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