Edgy Mama: How much screen time is too much?

National Public Radio recently reported that American kids average seven hours a day interacting with some type of screen.

Seven hours per day? That’s an average? That’s like a full-time job playing video games and watching movies and television. Who are these kids whose days are equal parts school, screen time and sleep? And what does that mean for them?

The amount of designated screen time is an ongoing kid vs. adult battle in my household. During the school year, my kids are allowed one hour per day, though they rarely have time even for that when school’s in session.

During the summer, we’re a bit looser. They’re allowed an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon. Again, two hours per day rarely happens. Activities like camps, swimming, play dates, eating and sleeping intrude. We don’t offer make-up screen time.

Different rules work for different families. I know parents whose kids get no screen time during the school week, but are allowed unlimited weekend access. Others let their kids decide how much time they think is adequate. One friend let her kids come up with a summer screen plan and was pleasantly surprised when they decided that six hours per week was sufficient.  Seven hours per day never crossed their crunchy little Asheville-bred minds.

At the moment, I mostly control my kids’ screen time, although my girl’s been known to sneak her Nintendo DS up to her room and light up the covers with Mario races. In a few years, when my kids will be old enough to stay at home alone for a few hours at a time, my control will lessen. So my current goal is to help them learn to entertain themselves by reading, writing, playing together, or doing just about anything legal that doesn’t require a screen.

Screens aren’t all bad. My son likes to play educational games on the PBS Kids Web site. My girl likes to play chess and look up baseball stats. There’s evidence that proficiency at video games increases hand-eye coordination and has been a boon to surgeons who need to manipulate tiny instruments during surgeries using, yes, a screen. One of my kids could surprise me, but I don’t see M.D. coming after either of their names.

On the other hand, screen time is sedentary time, and a more sedentary lifestyle contributes to childhood obesity and its resultant health problems. Also, there’s evidence that watching screens induces a semi-catatonic state. Clearly, watching TV rarely builds problem-solving skills or stimulates the brain to profundity.

I’ve read that even Microsoft founder Bill Gates limits his daughter’s screen time. I imagine if she was developing new software instead of playing video games, he might expand her limit.

I’m resigned to fighting the screen time battle for the next several years. My son, in particular, is at that prosecutorial stage where every decision I make is up for debate. He argues that although we don’t watch TV, his Dad and I spend more than an hour per day on our computers — which isn’t fair.

The fact that we’re working, to earn money, to buy pizza and toys for his royal highness, doesn’t seem to matter. Particularly as he’s figured out that while his Dad truly does work on a computer most of the day, Mom only needs about 15 hours a week to pound out this column plus whatever other articles she needs to produce. But hey, Facebook’s a great place to research parenting issues.

Regardless of the hypocrisy, I’m still in charge. My biggest problem this summer is that we added on a room last summer that the kids have dubbed the “media room.” That’s a grandiose name for a cubbyhole containing a 20-year-old television, a cranky DVD player and my old, tortoise-slow laptop computer. But, this means that the kids are no longer interacting with screens in my home office (otherwise known as the living room).

What I want someone to invent is this: a simple device that plugs into all household screens and records the number of minutes each kid spends on each screen per day. It’d be set up so they can’t access a screen without a password that starts the countdown clock. They’re kids, so they might eventually figure out a way to outsmart the device.

But in the mean time, having a good way to measure their screen time would offer me some serenity. And while serenity and summer both start with an “s,” that’s about the only thing they have in common when you’re a parent of young kids.

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10 thoughts on “Edgy Mama: How much screen time is too much?

  1. Piffy!

    sounds like some unregistered multiple-name person wishes he had a column of his own that was worth reading…

  2. Asheville Dweller

    Very Wrong again, which you must be used to by now. You also imply worth reading these musings are just that musings.

  3. Piffy!

    Well, “Asheville Dweller” (AKA nam vet) are you saying you didnt actually read EM’s column? You claim to be from Asheville, but your manners are that of a New Yahka. Maybe you should move back to Joisey if you hate the South so much.

  4. Rob Close

    i thought this was one of EM’s better articles of all time. honest, self-critical, and relevant.

  5. David

    You could warn your kids that if they dont study enough, they’ll end up like “Asheville Dweller”, lurking and bah-humbugging…

  6. sj

    You designate your son “his royal highness”,

    Does that make you ” Her Majesty ? “

  7. “National Public Radio recently reported that American kids average seven hours a day interacting with some type of screen.”

    After this first paragraph,nothing else in this article follows logically.

    “That’s like a full-time job playing video games and watching movies and television.”

    It says: some type of screen, that includes computer research, keyboarding lessons, cell phones, iphones, ipods, digital cameras, video cameras, etc.

    “Who are these kids whose days are equal parts school, screen time and sleep?”

    What are you talking about? You don’t believe screen time counts when they are at school? They have computer labs, keyboarding, educational videos, not to mention texting and computer skill classes like photoshop and video editing & production while at school.

    “On the other hand, screen time is sedentary time”

    Not always, some kids jog and exercise with cell phones, iphones, and ipods.

    And what is a kid, under 18? under 21? Screen time increase for research, graphic arts skills or video editing and production and other computer skills as they get older.

    My kids now 21 and 23, averaged more than 7 hours a day of various screen times since they were 4, and I encouraged it along with mountain biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities.
    My daughter is now a highly paid digital photographer in Denver, and my son landed a job with Microsoft in Seattle with a crazy salary and great lifestyle. Both enjoy healthy lifestyles and participate in outdoor recreation.

    EM I worry that you might be cheating your kids out of healthy and secure career directions due to
    a misunderstanding that 7 hours of some type of screen time must be bad because NPR implied it is.
    Seven hours a day interacting with some kind of screen is vastly different than 7 hours a day watching TV or playing video games.

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