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Screens are a necessary tool in today’s world, but they can cause a lot of family anxiety. As parents themselves, Rowland Hall’s princiPALS understand this struggle—and so they’re tackling the topic. Join the pals for a discussion about current guidelines (and why it’s understandable if you can’t always adhere to them), high-quality programming, social media, the importance of balancing screen time and productive play, and how you can get the whole family involved in identifying values and boundaries that will guide screen time in your home.
- Dr. Becky Kennedy/Good Inside
- Common Sense Media
- Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory (2023)
- Current social media guidelines: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Common Sense Media, Mayo Clinic
The transcript of this episode appears below.
Conor Bentley (00:01):
From Rowland Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah...
Emma Wellman (00:04):
I'm Emma Wellman.
Brittney Hansen (00:05):
And I'm Brittney Hansen.
And they're the princiPALS.
I'm Conor Bentley, and on today's episode of princiPALS, we'll be talking about your kids and screen time.
On The PrinciPALS Podcast, we tackle big questions and share big ideas about how to raise excellent humans.
Well, hi there, Emma and Brittney. It's nice to be back in the princiPALS' office with you.
So today we're talking about screen time, and obviously this is a big question. It's been a question since we were kids, probably—like, how much TV you're watching, that kind of thing. I know that was always a concern.
How close you sit to the TV.
Yes. Because it's going to rot your eyes. No, but I think this is a huge question for parents, always. And I think, obviously, there's more screens now, different screens, smaller screens, portable screens, and so, you know, and I think this has obviously even come up more because of COVID and since COVID. So this is a very interesting topic that, I'm sure, everybody will be very curious about what your thoughts are on screen time.
Yeah, I'm glad we're talking about this one too. It's a hot topic for families and I think it's tricky.
So, maybe a little counterintuitively, I'm going to start by sharing information that seems simple. I want to just share the guidelines from experts, because I think it's valuable to ground ourselves with, just, some information based on research and also child development around language and cognitive development, and even the development of bodies and eyes that we have learned kind of across the last probably 20 years. So this research is not brand new, and I think it's really well supported.
So, general guidelines are that from birth to 18 months, screen time should really be limited to video calls. Video calls is a more recent addition, as you can imagine, and certainly for those of us who have family members who live far away from our young children, this is something really important; it's worthwhile screen time, for sure. So, birth to 18 months, the only screen time that experts recommend we invest in is video calls. From 18 months (so one and a half) to two years, the goal is to watch only what they call high-quality videos—we'll talk more about that later—with a caregiver. So, a little child and a caregiver sitting side by side, watching something on a phone or on TV together for a pretty limited amount of time, is what the experts recommend. From two to five years, one hour per day of high-quality content is the upper-bound recommendation. And then, from five and beyond, what the experts tell us is that we should establish a family media plan that has clear guidelines.
And so, I want to just name that there's a fair amount of ambiguity in some of these recommendations. It's worth our discussion, a little bit later, about what high quality might mean. And I also want to acknowledge that, depending on what your family's current routines are, these recommendations may sound like a lot or a little. Like, you may be a family who's spending more screen time besides video calls with your very youngest child, or you have more than an hour a day with your four-year-old happening, and I want to be really clear that the goal for us in this podcast episode is not to be judging anybody or making anybody feel bad. We just wanted to start by laying out the standard recommendations, and then we'll kind of unpack them a little bit.
I also want to share what can happen when kids are exposed to too much screen time. So, like, a really well-publicized impact is sleep problems. And this has to do with blue light, but also with how engaging and stimulating screen time can be for kids. And, of course, this is something that grown-ups hear about all the time too. Like, we're not supposed to be looking at our phones in our beds—although I do that every night and I should probably work on that. And maybe by the time we record the next podcast episode, I will be better at it.
When are we supposed to do the Wordle, if we don't do it then? That's my question.
So true, so true.
Another thing that happens when kids spend too much time on screens is that they read fewer books. This also kinda makes sense, right? If they are spending a lot of time looking at screens, consuming that kind of media, then they are probably spending fewer hours in a day reading good old-fashioned chapter books or picture books or novels, whatever it might be.
Is that, Emma, do you think a product of just, like, the amount of time in the day? Right? Like, so: more time on a screen equals less time available for reading? Or is it more about: the time on a screen is sort of training us, or training our children, to have shorter attention spans and then they're less likely to want to spend time reading? Right? Like, is it just about amount of time or is it something bigger than that?
I think it's both. I think there's a lot of things that get displaced when kids are spending a lot of time on screen. So definitely the hours in the day matter, because there's a limited number of them. But just as you said, time on screens is really engaging and stimulating, and so it's pretty hard to compete with, as everybody who is raising a child anywhere near a screen knows.
There's some other things I want to highlight that happen when kids have too much screen time. So, they often spend less time with family and friends. That gets at, you know, at the upper bound of spending lots of time on screens. They don't get enough outdoor time or physical activity. They may suffer from mood problems. And then they have less time spent learning in other ways to relax and have fun. So if the default is: you come home and you plug into a screen, you maybe don't get experiences using other methods to transition away from your school day or to settle yourself down when you've been really busy or a little bit activated or stressed. So a lot of things we want to be worried about and mindful of in terms of too much screen time, for sure.
There's also a piece here, Emma, that Dr. Becky talks about—and she is sort of an awesome resource that we'll certainly link in the show notes—that, I think, you know, she can teach us about many different things, but has a lot of great things to say about screen time in particular. And she talks about sort of the ease and enjoyment that children feel when they're put in front of a screen. They don't have to do too much to feel regulated and calm and like they're enjoying their time. Right? And so by putting them in front of a screen, we are denying them that time when they can be playing in a more productive way that might be more challenging from them on a cognitive level, that might provide them some struggle or some conflict with others around them, right? And so they're denied an opportunity to really build skills that are really important for young children to build, because of how easy screens really are for them.
Yep. And I experience that, even on an adult level. I think sometimes, if I'm standing in line, if I have a little bit of interstitial time that I wasn't expecting and it feels awkward, the easiest way for me to soothe myself is to pull out my phone in order to cope with that moment, right? Like, that feels very real to me, even as a grown-up person.
Right. You're in the lunch line at school and you don't have a great conversation starter for the colleague who comes up behind you, right? So instead of engaging and bridging that social gap, you pull out your phone and look at your email instead.
Yep. But I also want to acknowledge that there are a number of things that can be added as a result of what's on those screens, and some of those additions are things we really might not prefer. So, you know, kids can get exposed to violence and risk-taking behaviors. They can see videos of stunts or challenges that may inspire unsafe behavior; there's a spate of those every fall, on social media in particular, that kind of sweep the country's upper schools, high schools, I think in particular. They can be exposed to sexual content that they're not prepared to understand yet, or that may not be reflective of the values that your family has around sex and sexual relationships. They can be exposed to negative stereotypes or to people abusing substances. They can be exposed to cyberbullies and predators and advertising for toys you don't want to buy them, as well as misleading, inaccurate information. So there's a lot of stuff out there. It's kind of a Wild West situation online, especially, and so I think it's really important to track the fact that not only are there risks to spending lots of time on screens, but there are also risks to spending any time on screens that is not high quality, where it's not being monitored and supervised really well. And that's one of the reasons that the American [Academy] of [Pediatrics], for example, on Common Sense Media, have the recommendations that we talked about at the top of the episode.
So Emma, you're making it really clear that there's a lot of danger associated with screens and screen time, which is just the reality of the thing. And I think in a perfect and easy parenting world, we would just say, "All right, then no screens," but that's, you know, it's just not possible. And I think, in my own life, and in the lives of parents all around me and in our school community, and broader community as well, it's just a really big struggle to grapple with as parents. It's one of the hardest to figure out because the evidence is really clear what kids need, and it's not a lot of screen time, and it's a lot of supervision. And doing that is really hard, and it's hard for a number of reasons. For me, there are just many different sort of hurdles that I have to get over as a parent to make good choices for my kids. The first one is that we're all just really busy. Right? I live in a, you know, in my household, it's a two-parent household. We're both full-time working parents, and screen time for our three kids allows us to get things done. Right? Honestly, if we want to get anything done in the house that requires more than a couple minutes of our attention back to back, right, putting the kids in front of the screens [is] one of the only ways to get that, you know, dedicated time where we can really think deeply about a thing that is different than parenting or being with our children in that moment. And so finding ways to get around that is hard, especially when you know it's right there at your fingertips. Even though we know it's not the right choice, it's hard to get around.
The second thing I think that's really tricky, and as an educator, like, my educator brain says, "I know this is not the right move," but my mom brain sometimes wants to do the opposite, is that screens work really well for regulating kids who are dysregulated. So, if my child is having a really hard moment and we are having a heck of a time as a family getting this child through the moment, it's very hard not to hand them an iPad because we know that two minutes on an engaging app will help to snap them out of the moment. It's the distraction that they need sometimes to move on. And my educator brain knows that I am robbing them the opportunity to practice more important coping skills that she needs to practice, right? She needs to grow those connections in her brain in order to be able to do this time and time again as she grows older, but the screen is right there and it could solve the problem really quickly and it could solve a lot of headache. And so that's a really big challenge.
And then the third piece that I think is really hard about screens, and maybe the hardest, is that modeling the behaviors that we want to see is almost impossible.
Our whole adult lives are really wrapped up in a screen. I think about my spouse. He is a voracious reader, and almost all of the reading that he does is on a screen, and that's because he's reading things that are current and coming out daily, right? So it's not chapter books, right? But it's the news, it's information that's new and fresh, and so it's going to be on a screen. That's just the way it is. And what the child sees, then, is dad on a screen, right? Or mom on a screen. My work is almost completely on a screen when it's after hours, right? During the school day, principals are out and about with kids, with teachers, but when we come home and are with our own families, the work that we do is via email. Right? It's on Google Docs. It all is on the computer or on our phones, and the kids see that. And so to model a life that is not tied to a screen is really almost impossible. And I just, you know, it's one that I don't know how to get around as a parent.
It's also, I think, the way that people connect with each other most commonly. And so kids are also seeing work, they're seeing leisure, they're seeing learning, and they're seeing social lives, our social lives. All of those things happen on screens now. And so, yeah, I think it's really, I appreciate you pointing all of that out because it's super duper tricky, and I don't think it's straightforward either.
Yeah, it's certainly not.
Wow, that is a lot of challenging stuff to deal with. And I think back to, you know, when I was a kid and it was very different, right? I mean, it was all about, oh, don't watch too much TV and that kind of stuff. And obviously, you know, TV is part of this, and movies and stuff like that, but all of the other stuff that comes along with phones and internet, it's a whole added piece that I think that we didn't really contend with. I mean, we kind of grew up in a time when that was coming up, and, like, you know, I remember, like, seventh, eighth grade, we had the first dial-up internet stuff. But it is very different now and it just feels like, you know, there's always something new with it, too, right? It's not just finite, or there's not a time where it's going to stop. It's just going to continue to be in our lives more, so it seems like there's just going to be more and more challenges, as opposed to fewer.
Yeah, there's so much that's different about our kids' lives and technology than our own. You just sort of reminded me, Conor, to think back to my own childhood, and I think one big difference around screen time was that, often, something like watching TV was a family event. Right? Because of the way TVs worked, right? And because there was a schedule, and you had to wait for your favorite show to come on, and your whole family was waiting for it together. And it was kind of a social, family moment of connection, right, which had its own really positive function that we have now lost. Right? Because those shows are on demand, at our will, and we can each watch our own show at the same time, right? So it's all very different.
Yeah. Yeah, so I will say, definitely this is a situation in which I feel as a parent, and I think other parents feel this way, too, like, we wish that there were an answer. Like, somebody could just tell us what to do, or we could just, you know, do some kind of, like, screen-time bootcamp and then everything's better. But, unfortunately, because of what you were just sharing, Conor, like, there's always something new and things will be really different in five years than they are right now, probably, around this topic. And so there's a moving target here and there's not really a box-checking that's going to happen. And, in fact, the grappling and the way-finding that you do as an adult for your own screen-time use, and also for your children's screen-time use, is the modeling that is so valuable for your kids to observe and also participate in. It is the, like, maintenance work that you're doing as a family to figure out how to manage screens. That's all really, really helpful learning for them because this is the same set of skills that we want them to internalize and use for their long lives that will undoubtedly include all kinds of screens and ways of being connected that we can't even imagine right now.
And I think, like, I really feel a pull to, you know, remove all the screens from my life, right? Sometimes I have a pretty robust fantasy about, like, living on a farm, and there's no internet and we don't have a TV, and all that jazz, because it would seem to be simpler. But, of course, this is sort of like the idea of removing all sugar from your household or never letting your child ever eat sugar, right? And, again, practice is important for kids' learning. So they need that practice and exposure in order to get better at and know how to use a thing. And so if our kids are going to go to school or go to other people's houses, there are going to be screens and sugar in those places, and so we'd better figure out how we're going to equip them with some kinds of tools and some knowledge and some practice in not having all or nothing, right? Like, if what they're learning is: I can have no sugar or all the sugar, or no screens or all the screens, that's not going to be a helpful frame for them.
So, you know, when we're talking about way-finding processes like this with families, we often talk about family values, establishing family values that are specific to your family and then establishing some clear boundaries. So that's the thing that I'm going to recommend, you know, we try on in this situation. So, like, you might have family values including getting daily physical activity or that kids make meaningful contributions to the work of the family or to your community. You may have a family value that dinnertime is for reconnection, so it's screen-free—or, perhaps, that you use screens to learn something together while you're eating dinner, right? Like, there's a lot of different family values that you might have. Maybe creative expression, including digital arts, is a family value, and so spending time on screens making things is really important.
Whatever they are, whatever your family values are, trying to identify what they are, and how they might relate to screen time, I think is a good first step, and then setting some clear boundaries that work for your family. So that includes having an upper limit on the amount of screen time per day or per week. They could align with the ones we mentioned earlier, or not. You could have a set of expectations around what kinds of screen time kind of count within that limit. So, like, kids as they get older in school may have some kinds of homework that are done on a screen and maybe that doesn't count against their screen time that you're cataloging for each week.
And then certainly, of course, I recommend having boundaries about the kinds of things that kids can see and do on screens, as well as a protocol for what to do if they see something they shouldn't or for which they aren't ready. And it's really important to have conversations with kids as you're expanding their kind of sphere of independence online. For example, it's really important to have conversations with them about what to do if they see something or hear something that makes them uncomfortable or that they're not sure about. And, of course, the first thing they should do is turn the screen off, and the second thing they should do is come and talk to a grown-up about it.
Okay, so you're saying that we need to have, you know, clear boundaries and know what kinds of expectations we have around screen time and what sort of things we're watching. You talked about quality screen time. I'm just curious what you mean by quality. I mean, I think I have an idea, and I think that one of the things I'm thinking of is Muppets. Obviously that should be in the quality category.
Very high quality.
But yes, but there is quality stuff. I mean, I know, for example, like, as a kid, like, you know, watching PBS on TV was considered much more quality than, like, Saturday morning cartoons.
Right, like, so I know that there's sort of a definition of quality from a parental standpoint.
Yeah. Well, I'll share, maybe, what I think about in terms of quality, and then, Brittney, I'd love to hear what you're thinking about too. So I think about, kind of, two things. The first is: generally, higher quality, like, TV shows or videos on YouTube are things in which there is some measure of intentional educational component there. Like, there is a good message, there is an experience that kids are getting, exposure to an idea or some facts that are new to them. I really like Common Sense Media—probably a lot of folks are familiar with that resource—as a way to get a sense of what the messaging might be and whether those messages and lessons are appropriate for your child's age group. And that's great. It's great to check Common Sense Media before you show your child something so that you don't have to watch it all the way through in advance if you've never seen it. You may not prefer to watch all of Daniel Tiger before you watch Daniel Tiger. So I would say something educational is one component.
The other is really about, kind of, how stimulating the images and the sounds are. And so, in general, I would say higher quality things to watch have fewer, like, surprising flashes and, like, loud noises, or bright colors unnecessarily. And that's tricky because those are the exact things that children are seeking on screens. And so trying to kind of pull back to maybe more basic animation, things that look a little bit less flashy, I think, can result in a screen-time experience for your child that is less overstimulating and also probably less addictive, frankly.
That's right, Emma. I think tools like Common Sense Media are a great place to start to gather information about media channels, cartoons, things that your kids might be consuming that you don't know a lot about. Those tools are really helpful. And I also think that it's important to start to build a network of families or community members that you think might be like-minded with you about, you know, what is appropriate for your kids at your children's age. Right? I have, you know, several trusted friends, and I hear from them and we talk from time to time about the programming that our kids do and do not consume, right, and why, and I've learned so much from them. And because they're humans that I trust, I know that I don't then need to go watch every episode and curate it for my child because that just isn't going to work. Right? And so we have to approach this in a way that's smart, right, and that's going to actually work for us if we're going to do anything to sort of protect our kids because, you know, the internet is wild. And one thing I've learned recently, especially now that I have a 10-year-old, is that there's lots and lots and lots of media out there to consume that is meant to look like it's quality on the surface, right, via either the title or the cover page on YouTube, or even the first minute or two, right? And then it changes into something very different, something that you don't want your child to consume, but without some really careful curation, you know, we can be fooled. You know, we're all trying to do right by our kids, but there are a lot of folks out there creating media who are not trying to do right by the kids, and it's easy to miss things as parents because there's just so much flying at us all the time.
Yeah, and I think the other thing that is really helpful, that I refer back to from those guidelines around this particular topic around quality, is, like, if you invest a bit of time watching a thing with your child, and you know that that thing is fine because you've watched it with them, kids actually love to rewatch things. I don't know if anybody else remembers this, but I rewatched the same TV shows, like, the same episodes, the same movies, a bazillion times, until I had them memorized. Kids love that repetition, so we don't have to worry that they always need to be watching—if you find three things that you feel good about them watching, great. They can choose from among those three things for, like, a month before you make time to watch the next thing with them.
Totally. Great Muppet Caper. Seen it a million times. And I think my mom kept saying, like, "How does he keep wanting to watch the same thing over and over?" But she didn't have to worry about it because she knew exactly what it was.
Yep, exactly. Yeah, kids like repetition. It makes them feel like experts.
So in that vein, is it just okay to watch something that's just for entertainment value? Like I said, The Great Muppet Caper was one that I watched over and over. It's not particularly educational, it's just good clean Muppet fun. So what about that is bad? Or, is it bad to just be entertained?
No, I think it's great. I think that's one of the wonderful things about screen time, actually, so I appreciate you asking that question. It is a lot of fun to watch movies, to watch TV, to watch funny YouTube videos. It's just about attending to those things that kids could be getting exposure to before we're ready for it, right? So that's the stuff where we want to be thoughtful about violence and sexual content and negative stereotypes, all those kinds of things that we want to be prepared to address if they do pop up for kids. But you're right, it's not that every single moment of screen time has to be enriching kids, obviously, in ways that are going to make them smarter or better at math or something.
So we've talked about a lot of aspects of screen time, but one of the ones that I know a lot of people are curious about, and it's kind of the elephant in the room with a lot of people, is social media. So where does that fit into all of this?
Yeah, that's another question I'm really glad you asked. So, as folks probably know, there was recently a surgeon general health advisory released—and I really encourage folks to go and look at that, and we can link it in the show notes—but it indicates really clearly that social media is to be absolutely avoided for kids younger than 13. And that for children between the ages of 13 and 17, accounts should be really carefully monitored. And that's because there are some really meaningful risks of serious negative mental health impacts for kids who are engaging with these social media platforms, whether those kids are posting or not. It can really kind of do a number on their mental health and sense of self. And perhaps unsurprisingly, these negative impacts on mental health are even bigger for girls. So it's really something to be wary of, I would say, social media for kids, for sure. We want to be really careful.
Absolutely. I think as a parent, it can be pretty scary, so I appreciate this new guidance that's out, frankly, because it's pretty clear.
One thing that I just would love to underscore, the best piece of advice I've received recently around handling screen time for my own family, is this idea of having a family conversation in which the kids are intimately involved about screen time in particular. And it's, of course, got to be developmentally appropriate for the age of the kids in your family, right? So, every family system is different, so the conversation's going to look different depending on how old your kids are and what your values are around screen time. But engaging the kids in an intentional conversation about what your family screen-time expectations are is a really great way to get on the same page with your kids and, if you have co-parents involved, with those folks as well. And the conversation has to be malleable, it has to be ongoing, it has to be adaptable, right? Because screen time within our family system is going to change as kids grow, as the needs and the media that they have to consume changes and their interests change, and same with our work and our adult interests in what we're consuming on screens change, right? The conversation has to keep moving and it has to be open. I think it's really important that kids understand why parents are inclined to potentially set limits and to make clear boundaries around screen time, and that also the kids have an opportunity to voice sort of the skin that they have in the game and what screen time means to them and why some of it, in a productive and safe way, is important to them, too, right, in their lives. So engaging them in the conversation is really important, and I appreciated that advice from a colleague recently, who had this meeting with her own family and really got a lot out of it and appreciated the maturity that her kids—who, you know, are younger still, right, elementary schoolers—were able to bring to the conversation.
Well, and it seems to me, too, that having a conversation, helping the kids understand that, you know, there are times where the adults do need to do screen time, right? Like, work has to be done on a computer, and reading the newspaper used to be the paper, now it's on your phone. So I think having those conversations, too, helping them understand that adults might be able to do certain things that the kids can't. Right?
Absolutely. We just need to be open and honest with the kids about what we're doing and why, and how the expectations apply to us as well as them. You know, sometimes they'll be the same and sometimes they'll be different, but that it's intentional and it's meaningful, and that they're a part of that conversation. You know?
And the last piece that I think is really important to note is that, running alongside of this family plan for screen time, there also has to be a really intentional family plan for quality time that is screen-free. Right? Kids need to know that they can count on their parents or caregivers to spend consistent time with them in a quality way, with the screens put away, where they can really have their parents' full attention in whatever that activity or play may be, and they're not having to compete, right? They're not having to compete with the iPhone for mom or dad's attention, right? So, so it's got to go side by side. I think you've got to have both pieces.
So with that, a lot of information there and hopefully it was helpful. And so, the homework for today is going to really reflect what we talked about.
Yeah, so first up, we're going to invite everybody to try out having one of these family meetings that Brittney was just describing. Engage your kids, and any grown-ups who live in your house, in an open and honest conversation about what's currently happening, what's working, what's not working, and how you all want to try to proceed, you know, for the next chunk of time, with respect to screen time.
And our second piece of homework is to notice, attend to, really take stock of your own screen-time usage that happens in front of your kids. What are your kids noticing? What are they around? And the homework is not to necessarily make any changes, but just to begin to attend to the picture that your children are seeing around the grown-ups' use of screens and how screens play a part in their lives.
Well, I think that is a great place to stop, but, of course, we have more resources for you in the show notes, and we'll have more episodes of princiPALS coming as well. So thank you very much for listening. Emma and Brittney, thank you very much for having me in the princiPALS' office. And until next time...
I'm Emma Wellman.
And I'm Brittney Hansen.
And they're the princiPALS.
About Emma Wellman
Emma Wellman is the Beginning School and Lower School principal at Rowland Hall, an independent private school in Salt Lake City, Utah. Emma joined Rowland Hall in July 2018 and spent three years as the Beginning School (preschool) principal before also joining the Lower School (elementary) team. Prior to Rowland Hall, Emma was a teacher and administrator at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, an adjunct instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago, and the owner of a childcare business, Banana Mashers. Emma holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and a master’s in child development from the Erikson Institute.
About Brittney Hansen ’02
Brittney Hansen is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2002. She has been a Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal at Rowland Hall since 2022, and was a member of the Beginning School faculty from 2019 to 2022. Prior to Rowland Hall, Brittney interned briefly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and subsequently worked for six years at Washington University in various roles, including assistant director of residential life. Brittney holds a bachelor’s in social thought and analysis from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s in education from Harvard University.
About Conor Bentley ’01
Conor Bentley is a graduate of Rowland Hall’s class of 2001. He holds a master’s degree in education, works in higher education, and has produced several podcasts, including the public-radio parody Consider Our Knowledge.