Screens Aren’t Zombifying Your Children

There are worse things your kid could be doing than spending time with their iPad. And there’s plenty of research to suggest so.

A health professional visited our playgroup a little while ago. Inevitably, she bought up screen time. “It’s just so tragic to see these active children turn into a shell of themselves! They just sit there, immobile, blank looks on their faces!”

The other parents nodded. 

One mum bought up that viral Huffington Post article featuring a series of photographs of children’s faces lit by the glow of screens, mouths agape, hooded eyes. “Screens turn them into zombies!”

I hate that series of photos, partly because it’s such an aggressively invasive thing to do – to capture people’s expressions when they’re unaware and vulnerable – but also because my children don’t often act that way in front of screens.

I couldn’t help myself. “That’s interesting to me, to hear you say that. Because my kids’ favorite program is ‘Diego’, and when they watch that they are up on their feet, doing the jogging, cheering the responses. And even when it isn’t an action show, I watch my children wriggling to the edge of their seat in excitement. They are laughing and nodding and smiling.”

Funnily enough, all the parents began nodding again. “Yes! They get so in to it, it’s almost as if the characters are their friends!”

“My kids love Peppa Pig so much that they dance in their seats the whole way through it.”

“It is the highlight of their day!”

In one minute the conversation went from despair about screens to warm fuzzies about the enjoyment screens bring our children.

How to explain these reactions?

We’re in a tough situation as parents in 2017. We are breaking new ground. We are the first generation to raise children in a digital world, and we’re grappling with all the information out there about screens.
On one hand, we can see the pleasure our children get from them – and we want our children to enjoy their lives, don’t we? We also get to cook dinner without the 5 p.m. meltdowns that I suspect have haunted humankind for millennia. We can see that screens aren’t going anywhere, so we mustn’t try and act like they don’t exist.
On the other hand, almost every time we scroll through our Facebook feed, we find at least one article banging on about how screens are damaging our children’s brains or creating violent teenagers or irreparably breaking our children’s relationship with nature. All evidence-based, apparently.
We look at our hands, at the information piled up in them. We weigh the two sides, and brain damage and violence feels pretty damn heavy. So we opt in favor of our child’s brain, even knowing it will make them (and us) a little unhappier. Or we vote for happiness and feel wracked with guilt for raising a child with a slightly less than optimum brain, who will probably end up on a Most Wanted show for a violent outburst.
What if the hand holding the evidence didn’t feel so weighty?
What if that hand also held information about the neutral, or even good, side of screens?
What if recent vigorous studies showed that screentime for teenagers had no bearing on their mental health – that, even in the most extreme use, only impacted mental health by about a third of the impact of missing breakfast?
What if another recent study by the University of London found that toddlers who used tablets experienced no negative impact on developmental milestones? What if, in fact, the use of tablets correlated with the speedier development of fine motor skills?
What if it had been proven that no relationship existed between use of screens and a lack of time outdoors?
What if 100 eminent scientists were urging us to stop freaking out because the evidence used to scare us about screentime is baseless?

It’s not my business to tell you what to do about screens. We’re all forging our own path. All of our children are different. Each of our situations is different.

But as a fellow loving parent and fellow pioneer in this bold new digital world, it feels important to share with you the shaky nature of the more popular science on screentime. It feels vital that we get clear on the fact that there are far worse things for our children than an ipad.
As an advocate for child rights, I wanted to put some information into your hands that frees you up to make a decision that fits with your child’s wishes. If we dig a little deeper and open our minds a little more, it often happens that something our child wants can also be in their best interest.
Decisions based on fear are not life-giving. All the scaremongering about screens makes zombies of the parents – not the children.

Science Explains Why Your Kids Love Watching Unboxing Videos

You can’t for the life of you figure out why your kids are hypnotized by a pair of hands taking things out of boxes. But it actually makes sense.

Without fail, each time I set up my kids to watch a children’s video on YouTube, they navigate to videos of kids and adults unboxing and playing with toys. And every time, I’m shocked at how many views these kinds of videos get – often in the millions, sometimes in the tens of millions, even over 100 million.

This style of video was originally geared toward adults, with unboxers opening tech gadgets to provide a realistic preview and review of expensive products. But it found a more lucrative audience in toddlers. Top unboxers can earn six or seven figure incomes from ad revenue and appearance fees.

Why do kids find these videos so fascinating?

Personally, I equate them to the infomercials that I used to watch as a kid. I was fascinated by the transformation of a plain old jean jacket into a bedazzled beauty and intrigued by every kitchen gadget that Ron Popeil hawked. I marveled at how Ginsu knives and the Miracle Blade glided through a ripe tomato after hacking through shoe leather. In essence, the element of reveal that these infomercials offered entranced me. This is partly what makes unboxing videos so interesting to today’s youngest generation.

There appear to be a few other reasons, too.

The videos are the right speed for toddlers

The pace is slow and focused on a single task, like opening a Kinder Egg or shaping Play Doh into a princess dress. The simplicity is appealing to young children who are processing so much new information each day.

It’s the same reason kids love repetition and why pauses in shows like Blue’s Clues, which are meant to solicit responses from the kids watching at home, feel a few beats too long to adults. Toddlers need a little extra time to make sense of the world. Unboxing videos are their equivalent to listening to smooth jazz and sipping an espresso.

The videos are the right length: short

A typical video is three to five minutes long, which is perfect for a young child’s attention span, so children stay interested from start to finish. At the same time, YouTube queues up related videos, making it easy for kids to watch them continuously. And, trust me, they do keep watching.

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Little toddler is hypnotized by tablet screen

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The videos have a hypnotic effect

Based on my personal experience, I know this to be true. If I let her (and sometimes I do), my three-year-old will zone out for over an hour, watching perfectly manicured hands open brightly colored boxes, listening to the crinkle of packaging, and being lulled by the narration of a pleasant off-camera voice.

One hypothesis: These videos trigger the pleasure centers in a child’s brain, which may have various effects. Some enjoy them because it mimics the experience of opening the toys themselves, and what kid doesn’t love to open a present?

Another idea is that the set-up of these videos – the focused attention on a mundane task, the narration, the ambient sounds of clicks and crackles as toys are unboxed and assembled – trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) for certain children. This induces feelings of relaxation, the same way watching Bob Ross paint happy trees is so boring, yet also wonderful.

The videos feature popular and familiar characters

This point is obvious, but no less important. Each video features mainstream characters, and this is not by accident. Toy marketers send their products to unboxers to open because this form of advertising is inexpensive, but effective. The familiarity of the toys plays up on children’s fantasies to actually own them.

The videos are stimulating

As much as unboxing videos may invoke immediate feelings of relaxation for the children watching them, they may also prompt kids to imagine how they might play with the toys.

This is true for my daughter. Her favorite videos are of Disney Princess Magiclip dolls because she already has a few (okay, six). After watching a video, she’ll sometimes mimic what she’s seen by lining up her dolls and talking aloud as she swaps their dresses.

So is it safe for kids to watch these videos? I couldn’t find any studies saying it isn’t. It is up to us parents to use our judgment to regulate their consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises setting screen time limits based on your child’s age and to take the time to watch what they’re watching. If that’s not always possible, activate parental controls on YouTube to prevent kids from navigating to less appropriate videos.

If you’re about to Google how you, too, can earn millions of dollars by opening toys for a living, stop and think about all the toys already cluttering your home. Then, slowly back away from the search box.

Saying “Yes” to Screen Time With Purpose

Three simple ways we’re using the screen to focus on traditionally paper-based goals of reading, communicating, and drawing.

Right when I found out I was pregnant – okay, before I was even trying to get pregnant – I was amazed at all of the things that could harm a fetus. Coffee. Alcohol. Unpasteurized cheese. Deli meats. Fish. Cider. Bean sprouts. Litter boxes. Nail salons. Heavy lifting. The list got increasingly ridiculous. And that list of dangers was nothing compared to what could damage or kill my (at that time, still hypothetical) baby once it was born.

Mercifully for me and everyone around me, Emily Oster’s Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong – and What You Really Need to Know was released when I was just a few months pregnant. Oster, an economist at The University of Chicago, who was faced with similar lists of don’ts during her first pregnancy, decided to do what economists do: study all of the existing medical literature on pregnancy risks and crunch the data.

Her book is an excellent resource for those who want to better understand the actual risks of partaking in various activities (drinking a glass of wine, cleaning the litter box) so that they can make informed decisions. If you’re currently pregnant or know someone who is, buy this book!

Oster, who now writes for FiveThirtyEight, has turned her attention to screen time. Like Oster, I grew up under the “one hour rule” for television. My recently-acquired library of parenting books all recommend no screen time for infants and very little for older kids. But this shift from “no television” to “no screen time,” Oster argues, obscures what it is we are actually doing with all of the different screens in our lives.

We use screens to passively watch television and movies, but we also use them to play video games, read books, and write blog posts, among other things. In her review of the medical literature on the adverse effects of screen time, Oster found that some types of screen time offered no ill effects:

“Based on my read of the evidence, I’d say there’s absolutely no reason to think there’s anything worse about using a screen to do activities you would otherwise do on paper.”

This was extremely refreshing to read after years of hearing about the evils of screen time. Until recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics held the position that children should not be exposed to screen time until age two. In their recently revised guidelines, the AAP lowers this age to 18 months. Although the evidence for that limit is still unclear, it’s reasonable that the AAP wants parents to favor more active and social activities over screen use.

What’s most exciting about the revised guidelines is the AAP’s distinction between different kinds of media. Along with the new guidelines, they released a Media Plan tool. “By creating a Personalized Family Media Use Plan,” they suggest, parents “can be aware of when you are using media to achieve your purpose. This requires parents (and) users to think about what they want those purposes to be.” The AAP’s focus on purpose echoes Oster’s argument about screen use.

Thinking about screens as paper has helped me feel less guilty – and more creative – about screen time. I’m focused less on counting the minutes or half hours elapsed and instead using my phone to engage with my son as I might on paper. What follows are three simple ways we’re using the screen to focus on traditionally paper-based goals of reading, communicating, and drawing.


In the past few weeks, D has discovered letters all around him and loves to call out the letters he sees on grocery store displays, road signs, and book covers. Imagine, then, how excited he was when he realized he could make his own letters. He doesn’t have the motor skills for drawing, but he can type.

We have spent hours at the computer typing. He’s now good enough with the alphabet that he can take dictation, so I have him type words like “Mama” or “Grover” or “Bunny.” Recently, D discovered that he can change the color of his typing, which led to pages and pages of multicolored text. Our near-daily typing is helping D learn letters and form words.


D is too young to type words independently, but he is old enough to send emoji messages to his dad (and one of his cousins – my apologies to his mom). There’s plenty of healthy debate over “Emojigeddon,” but I imagine the naysayers have never watched their two-year-olds sending emoji-laden text messages.

D was having fun discovering all of the little pictures, but when he realized that he could use those little pictures to communicate with his dad, things got even more adorable: “I send you a cake!” “Dad send me a train!” Just make sure you have unlimited texting before you hand over your phone.


For my kid, who loves Color Crew (I could do without this one – crayon friends rat each other out to an eraser for coloring things “wrong,” but I digress…), I chose Paint Kid for iPhone. This app makes it easy to download your child’s scribbles to your Camera Roll for printing and framing. 

This story was originally published on the authors blog, snackdinner

Why We Have No Limits To Screen Time

I shrug off society’s belief that screen time equals neglectful parenting because when I look at my daughter, I see that she’s happy, healthy, and loved.

“Mum, can I watch a mooooooovie?” These words used to fill me with dread.

I didn’t want to say no as I try really hard to be a yes parent. But I also didn’t want to impair my children’s long-term cognitive function or, you know, alter the thickness of their cerebral cortex. So instead I managed every moment, directing them from playdoh to tree climbing to sensory play. I’d encourage them to relax every so often with a biscuit and a Fireman Sam audiotape.

There was not a spare minute for brain damage! For the kids, that is. Personally, I felt like I was going bonkers.

The Fireman Sam theme tune became the soundtrack to my parenting crisis.

I felt like I was hounded in one direction by research that seemed to show that screen time was immensely bad for children and hounded in another by my daughter’s clear wishes to watch movies and play on the iPad.

A turning point.

The turning point for me came when I realized I was being hypocritical. Here I was, making a living from screens! My blog, ebooks and Youtube channel had been providing the only income for my family for over two years. And I loved my job! I counted it a true privilege to open up my laptop and get paid to write and connect with people.

While I nearly always head to another location for the main grunt, I still Instagram and tweet from home. (Specifically from the windowsill at home, the only place we actually get the internet.)

One evening my daughter said “I don’t CARE if I get brain damage mum! And why do you get to play on the iPad?”

I decided that if I was going to pursue a path that didn’t feel good to me I had to be absolutely certain that the research was golden.

The jury is out.

Turns out, that for every article suggesting screen time makes kids moody, crazy and lazy there is another claiming that it makes them better students, with less psychological problems.

Faced with this ambiguous science, I did what I always do when confused – I ate a biscuit and rocked back and forth to the Fireman Sam theme tune.

Just kidding. I ignored it.

I simply said “Well, the research is no help. Let me do what feels right.”

And then a whole world of connection and joy was opened to me.

Screentime can provide connection and joy.

My oldest child, Ramona, just loves movies. Adores them. My youngest couldn’t care less; she would rather take her clothes off and roll in the mud. But Ramona loves them.

I decided I would always say yes to her requests to “watch somepin” or “play somepin.” I now sit down and watch with her (until the 96th replay and then I sit and deliciously read a novel) and we take turns playing her favourite games.

She began to open up to me and tell me things that had happened to her that she found hard. Playing the iPad with her somehow unlocked a door that I didn’t know had been so firmly closed.

Now that I was valuing the things she valued, she felt valued.

These days when she asks “Mum, can I watch a mooooovie?” I simply feel pleasure that I can help her do something she loves simply by flicking a switch for her.

Sometimes she asks to watch while she eats her dinner (is there anything better than combining pleasures in this way?) and sometimes she asks to watch a movie late at night and she will gently drift to sleep in front of the laptop. Sometimes the request drips off her lips first thing in the morning, and I stay in bed with our youngest while she welcomes the dawn with Rockstar Barbie.

I can shrug off society’s belief that these things equal neglectful parenting because when I look at my daughter, I see that she is happy, healthy, loved and deeply connected to us.

Limits or no limits?

We embrace screens and don’t impose limits, although we have some fairly natural boundaries around them. We are off grid and barely get internet, so our movies are dvd’s from the library rather than the bottomless resource that is youtube. We get our electricity from our solar panels, so some days we run out and there is not much we can do about it.

I am clearly a complete hippy, a total tree hugger. But I am convinced that screens are vilified as the enemy of nature, and our kid’s health, at the cost of parent – child connection. 

We are trying to get the internet to our farm, and perhaps we will have to have a conversation about how to use the endlessness of the internet wisely. But I hope to do it in a way that remembers the lessons I have learnt so far.

A trusting, open-minded relationship with my children is far, far more important to me than inconclusive research and societal expectations.

And I haven’t listened to Fireman Sam in a year.

Tips for wise no-limits screen time:

– Put effort into their screen time. Make sure they are warm, comfortable and well fed! Those post screen time blues are often simply because your child hasn’t had their physical needs met whilst watching/playing.
– Make a joyous, connecting occasion of it. Make popcorn. Dress up as the characters! Follow up a movie with themed food and crafts and imagination games. The iPad apps or movies they love can be a brilliant jumping off point for loads of activities to do together.

–  Make an occasion of other activities too! Learn how to knot a rope swing and go on hunts for the perfect tree to hang it from. Plan mud slides and lantern walks and picnics on the trampoline. If your lives are full of play and connection screens, simply become one of the many brilliant things your kids can choose from.

– Model what you believe in! If nature is important to you, make an effort to get out there and enjoy it. Kids will see value in the things you make time for.
Finally, if you do feel the need for limits, do it in a way that respects your child’s wishes and ideas, rather than imposing a rule. Hold a family meeting where everyone can come up with ways to limit screens in a way that feels good to everyone. (And stick to it yourself!)


Circle With Disney Removes Stress Over Screen Time and Kids

Circle is a powerful new tool for protecting kids from the worst of the internet, while taking parents out of the daily battle over screen time.

Here at, we believe that kids benefit from healthy interactions with computers, tablets, and smartphones.

2016 poll results on
2016 poll results on

Research shows that most parents agree. The problem, of course, is that it’s extremely challenging to teach kids healthy digital habits.

First, the devices are practically rigged against us. Studies show that they can stimulate dopamine release, which short-circuits attention and self-control.

Second, most kids are ill-equipped to self-regulate their relationship with technology. Their brains are still developing, and they lack practical experience.

Third,  family conflicts often break out when parents are forced to constantly intervene with their kids’ screen time. Kids have meltdowns when parents take their devices away. Parents get angry. Eventually, these conflicts can damage the parent-child relationship.

And then there’s all the porn and violence on the internet that’s still so hard for parents to block.

The makers of the devices, the publishers of the apps, and the owners of the social networks don’t do much to support parents. It’s not really in their short-term interests.

The default parental controls on most devices are very basic and limited. They can block certain types of content, but they don’t limit or restrict access to the device itself. And Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are never going to tell your kids that they’ve spent enough time on their networks.

Meet Circle from Disney

Circle from Disney solves many of these major problems. It can change your family’s relationship with screens, the internet, and even each other.


What is Circle?

Circle seamlessly connects with your home WiFi network to help parents filter content, manage screen time, and view and filter the sites and apps their kids use online.

It has two parts: a white plastic box about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, and an iOS app.

The cube seamlessly detects and connects to all devices on the home wireless network, including smartphones, tablets, video game consoles, Apple TV, and computers. The Circle iOS app manages how the internet is used on these devices. It has a powerful set of features:

Time Limits
Create daily time limits on apps and popular sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube.

Content Filter
Set individual filter levels by age—Pre-K, Kid, Teen, and Adult—for each member of your family.

Set Time Limits & Put the Internet on Pause
You can pause the internet for a single family member or the whole home with a single tap. You can pause a specific device at any time – computer, Kindle, or Apple TV. You can also choose a BedTime for individual family members and devices to avoid late night surfing.

Get Insights and See What Your Kids See Online
Circle gives one complete picture of how much time your kid spends online, and where they spend it. It counts the apps, platforms, categories, and websites they most frequently visit. Browsing history is tracked between all the devices used by your kid.


Three Steps for Activation

Circle is simple to set up:

  • Plug it in.
  • Download the free iOS app.
  • Choose your Circle from WiFi options in your iOS devices settings.

Customize Settings

With Circle set up, you then customize settings per family member and device. Kids get an internet experience that’s appropriate for them. Apple TV might allow a half hour of screen time while a laptop might have an hour, with access restricted for homework.


Effective parenting isn’t about control. It’s about teaching self-control.

Modern parents want to protect their kids while teaching them self-control. But you can’t teach kids self-control unless you provide opportunities to practice it. Giving kids a bit of freedom is one of the best ways to encourage learning and self-direction. However, it’s reckless to give kids unrestricted screen time.

Teaching kids about digital safety is one of the most important — and challenging — new responsibilities of parenting.

Circle provides a safe and measured way for kids to use screens without setting them loose on the internet. It can help kids learn digital self-direction with minimal parental involvement by giving kids better feedback about the actual time they spend on various apps and websites.

Kids can keep track of their own progress, and they can check up on their time limits in their MyCircle dashboard, so they know how much time they have left and make better choices about how to use it.

My favorite thing about Circle: it helps take parents out of the daily tug-of-war over screen time, while sparking better family conversations on the topic.

Parents set screen time limits in Circle. But once they’re set, they’re managed by the device. This means that parents aren’t the focus of the technology tug-of-war.

Circle also lets parents see how their kids use technology. This gives parents information to guide better conversations with their kids.

Finally, Circle helps parents serve as better role models.

Some kids pick up digital habits from watching their parents. A few months ago I wrote a post about putting your phone away in front of your kids. Circle may be the easiest way to make that happen via its “Pause the Internet” feature.

I believe Circle is exactly the right kind of tool for modern parents.

It supports the traditional role of parent as rule-setter and protector, but it gives kids safe guidelines to learn to digital responsibility.

Get Circle with Disney for $99


The Benefits of Screen Time for Kids: A Look at the Data

The risks of excessive screen time are studied and documented. But what about the rewards?

My husband is an electrical engineer who has worked for two of the largest tech companies in the world. I am an investor in a variety of tech products. 

We both benefit from screens in our professional and personal lives. Inevitably, we model how ubiquitous screens are for work and play.

The news is filled with warnings. Screen time before two years of age harms kids eyes as well as their attention spans. Sitting in front of the pixel boxes contributes to childhood obesity. Psychology Today posts cat scans of disintegrated gray matter. Pediatricians talk of over-firing nervous systems.

The risks are studied and documented. But what about the rewards?

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Self Control has the word “self” in it for a reason.[/su_highlight]

Allowing our kids to make their own choices (particularly during free time) improves their confidence, time management, and ability to sense and meet their own need.

Plus it preserves the parent-child relationship.

Peter Gray writes in the very same publication that scared us with brain scans:

“It is always a mistake, I think, to tell kids what they must or must not do, except in those cases where you are telling them that they must do their share of the chores around the house or must not do things that hurt you or other people. Whenever we prevent our kids from playing or exploring in the ways they prefer, we place another brick in a barrier between them and us. We are saying, in essence, ‘I don’t trust you to control your own life.’

Children are suffering today, not from too much computer play or too much screen time. They are suffering from too much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom.”

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Video games can help keep kids fit.[/su_highlight]

Screen time does not just mean kids are sitting like lumps on the couch. Many games encourage dancing, bouncing and swinging. In our house even sedentary games seem to include a lot of jumping around as they encourage each other to win a particular battle. They are in it together. It is really more We, or Wheee than it is Wii.

“Systematic surveys have shown that regular video-game players are, if anything, more physically fit, less likely to be obese, more likely to also enjoy outdoor play, more socially engaged, more socially well-adjusted, and more civic-minded than are their non-gaming peers.” – Wack & Trantleff-Dunn (2009), “relationship between electronic game play, obesity, and psychosocial functioning in young men; CyberPsychology & Behavior.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Easier access to academics.[/su_highlight]

As our kids get older, their technological fluency is leading to advanced academics. One of the most common phrases in our house is “search it up.” They have taught themselves how to inflate boats to contribute to their Destination Imagination Project. They have created multi media presentations on “matter” and they have learned how to pick a lock. We are so proud.

New Scientist explains…“there is an unquestionable body of research showing that new technologies can engage children,” she says. Her studies have shown that children who struggle to learn using books often made more progress with iPads.

Its not all research and reading…it is also having the technological fluency to focus on the content rather than the computing. In school test taking has taken to the keyboard.

My kids have to turn in assignments through Google docs and communicate with their teachers through email. Their ability to type and navigate the internet took a lot of their anxiety away about the process of school, allowing them to focus on learning.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]It’s a small world after all.[/su_highlight]

My younger son’s social life is supported by Skype. He may be online, but he is not alone. He chats with a boy from Germany about bedtimes while he plays Minecraft. He crafts imaginary worlds while learning about the real one.

When he is confused about a game, he heads to a wiki. When he needs a refund for an online purchase, he copies his purchase order and heads to the forum to request help from customer service.

Sometimes he sends gifts to his online friends. Other times he barters with them over pick axes and armor. He is learning cost-benefits analysis and other economic principles at the same time he is practicing social skills.

Kim Komando writes about the hidden benefits of Minecraft for USA Today:

“One overlooked value of most strategy-based video games is resource management. The player has a finite amount of resources at any given time and needs to decide wisely how to use them most effectively.”

He feels that anything and anyone are just a click away. This is a powerful message to learn at nine, and I don’t think that anything could have taught him this more quickly than a few keystrokes with the fingertips that reach forward to access the world.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Tablets level the playing field.[/su_highlight]

Studies that talk about family dinners and bedtime reading routines often have stratified results based on socioeconomic backgrounds. Tablets seem to take away some of the tilted results.

Although not every family has tablets in the home a consistently lowering price point (for example, $50 for a color Kindle Fire) is making access more equitable.

New Scientist cites a survey of more than 1,000 teachers and parents of five-year-olds concluding that: “importantly, the performance of children from low socio-economic backgrounds who use both at home is less likely to be below average at school than if they only look at books.”

According to Wired Magazine tech can be an equalizer economics as well as academics. “Technology can be the spark that transforms these limiting systems and extends economic opportunity to those marginalized populations desperately in need of it. If these individuals remain in the margins, and their perspective, ideas, and talents continue to go untapped, they will become a financial burden to society, rather than viable contributors.”

Instead of limiting our kids’ access to technology we offer slight oversight as they learn about research, Kickstarter, auctions, and other cultures. When they were small, they learned to read and write and add and take turns. Which is not to say our world is contained in computers.

Together we take family walks and bike rides, we kick around a soccer ball, and some of us play hockey and practice yoga. A Saturday might include a hike…after 6 hours of Minecraft and a movie.

It’s the way we live, for better and for worse. Brain scans be damned.

Understanding the Science About Kids and Screens

Some say that technology is destroying childhood. Others say it doesn’t matter at all. Both sides cherry pick and misuse research to make their case.

Some say that technology is destroying childhood. Others say it doesn’t harm it at all.

Both sides misuse research to back their cause. Cherry picking research to prove a point isn’t unique to the debate about kids and technology. But, in this case, anyone with an opinion can find a study to back them up.  And if that fails, there’s always circumstantial and anecdotal evidence.

It’s possible to cite research that proves an “irrefutable” link between media violence and aggressive behavior. It’s just as possible to cite studies showing “no evidence” of such a link.

Likewise, studies are sensationalized and turned into clickbait headlines. For example, “A New Kind of Social Anxiety in the Classroom” in The Atlantic purports to show that “Kids who constantly use phones and computers tend to be more nervous in face-to-face conversations.”

But the article actually says: “There’s no proof that an increased use of technology over the past five years has led to a greater prevalence of social anxiety.”

Unfortunately, it can take years and even decades to evaluate results from studies about human health and behavior. Because of this, there’s simply a lot that science can’t yet tell us about the long-term impact of different technologies on our mental and physical well-being.

(Though we can observe some short-term effects — see below. And some kids truly do become addicted to the internet.)

It’s also difficult to find excellent data detailing the effects of exposure to digital technology on childhood development. That’s partly because this technology is just a couple of human generations old. It’s also because study methodology is often narrowly focused or very broadly focused.

For example, people often cite studies of “screen time,” without differentiating the type of screens or behavior they’re referring to. Does that screen time mean watching television, or playing Xbox? Texting on an iPhone, or doing homework on a MacBook?

Some of the most commonly cited studies about the “educational merits of screens” are referring to educational TV programing, before the iPhone even existed. It works both ways.

I’m not saying we should throw our hands up and take the lame, willfully ignorant stance of “I’m not a scientist.” Likewise, we shouldn’t say “I have a personal anecdote that counters the results of your rigorous, respectable scientific study. Therefore, your entire study is useless.”

But we should keep in mind that every study has trade-offs and flaws. When it comes to human behavior, laboratory experiments often don’t match real-life behavior. And our personal, anecdotal experience is important but limited.

The Most Documented Effects of Excess Screen Time on Kids is on Physical Health

So far, the best-documented risks of excess screen time are physical. The negative impact of a sedentary lifestyle is very well documented, and screen time is sedentary by default. Heavy screen use in youth may establish life-long negative habits, and weight gained in childhood is difficult to lose later in life.

The most documented risks are:

What about negative impacts of technology on kids’  mental health?

Little can definitively be proven at this point, but there are indications that excess screen time impacts kids’ mental health, at least for the short term. Areas of potential harm include:

Some Kids Are More Vulnerable  

It should be noted that some kids exhibit addictive or escapist attachments to technology.  Likewise, some kids may be more vulnerable video-game inspired aggression.  This study found this to be true for kids with three “Big Five” traits: “high neuroticism (prone to anger and depression, highly emotional, and easily upset), disagreeableness (cold, indifferent to other people), and low levels of conscientiousness (prone to acting without thinking, failing to deliver on promises, breaking rules).”

Our always-on, intensely computer connected world is a totally new human experience.

But we don’t need to rely on double-blind scientific studies to know what’s good for our kids. Most of us agree on common sense limits on screen time. So let’s keep track of the latest research, with an awareness that the full story of technology’s impact on our kids’ health is still developing.

(I read a study that told me that’s the right thing to do.)

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Alarmism is Taking a Toll on Dialogue About Screen Time and Kids

It’s easy to feel alarmist about screen time and kids, especially with headlines feeding the alarm. But most of us agree more than disagree on this topic. Let’s use our common ground to engage in calmer, richer conversations about the best ways to equip our kids for the technology-driven world we all inhabit.

Jane Brody’s New York Times article “Screen Addiction Is Taking a Toll on Children” has parents and caregivers of kids talking. And screaming. It’s another high-profile salvo in the debate over kids and screen time.

Most parents will instinctively agree with the author’s basic argument: “Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance.

But the overall alarmist tone of the article takes us further away from a more balanced, useful conversation on this important topic.

Polarized Opinions & Incomplete Data

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to two hours per day for kids over 2 years old (with no screen time for kids younger than 2).

Some parents (and probably most kids) think that’s far too little screen time. Others think two hours a day is way too much – including some tech company CEOs who strictly limit their kids from using screens in their homes.

Many studies find that limiting screen time benefits kids’ health. For example, this study published in JAMA Pediatrics from Iowa State University found that when parents monitored and limited  their kids’ screen time, those kids were less obese, got more sleep, were less aggressive, and had better social behavior and academic performance after seven months. (More on this study here.)

There’s a large amount of evidence that kids are more sedentary now than in the past. Weight gained in childhood from sedentary behavior and diet becomes increasingly difficult for kids to lose as they get older.

However, there’s plenty of research showing positive benefits when kids use technology. For example, this study found that iPads in the classroom made children more cooperative and helped quieter kids participate.

And maybe tech doesn’t disrupt kids’ brains as much as we think. On MindshiftDr. Gary Small (neuroscientist, professor and director of the Longevity Center at UCLA) said “Young people are born into technology, and they’re used to using it 24/7. Their brains are wired to use it elegantly.”

In a separate interview with the New York Times, he also said “We really don’t know the full neurological effects of these technologies yet. Children, like adults, vary quite a lot, and some are more sensitive than others to an abundance of screen time.”

Either way, parents don’t need to rely on research and studies to make realistic, healthy technology guidelines for our kids. (Which can be problematic, as we’ll explore in our next post.) Our own common sense is a powerful tool for helping kids develop a healthy relationship with technology.

Also, I don’t think that parents are really that confused or divided on this topic. I believe that most parents can agree on ten things about screen time and kids:

  1. Nothing is more important than our kids’ well-being.
  2. Technology and screen time is a fact of modern life, fundamental to participating in our economy.
  3. Technology can play both positive and negative roles in kids’ lives.
  4. Not all screen time is created equal; some is creative and productive; other screen time is passive and consumptive.
  5. Kids best learn language, social cues, and how interact with other people via real-world social relationships.
  6. Because every kid is different, screen time helps and harms kids in different ways.  In special circumstances, some kids need screens to best take part in the world, while others can develop addictive behavior.
  7. Children share the same basic biology and go through similar developmental phases as they mature into adults.
  8. Because of their rapidly developing minds and bodies, younger kids are most vulnerable to negative consequences of excess screen time.
  9. An overly sedentary lifestyle is dangerous to kids’ health.
  10. Too much of anything is a bad thing for any human being.

It’s easy to feel alarmist about kids and technology, especially with clickbait headlines feeding that alarm. But debating from extremes isn’t productive. Most of us agree much more than we disagree on this topic.

Let’s use our common ground to engage in calmer, richer conversations about the best ways to equip our kids for the technology-driven world we all inhabit.

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A missed point in the debate about screen time and kids

 Glowing rectangles can’t replace tactile experiences, but kids can still use them to learn, create and explore their curiosity.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “today’s child lives in an environment with an average of 4 TVs, nearly 3 DVD players or VCRs, 1 DVR, 2 CD players, 2 radios, 2 video game consoles, and 2 computers.”

That’s a lot of media.

In our house, we operate without any hard and fast rules about screen time. The TV isn’t on during the day,  or ever used as background noise. The kids can watch something during the morning rush, as long as they’ve completed everything they need to do before we head out the door. Most Friday nights we watch a movie together. The video game consoles can go weeks without being touched, but then nearly reach combustion temperature during a rainy-day playdate.

Rationing computer time becomes a bit trickier.

My son discovered Minecraft a couple years ago, along with the rest of his elementary school class. He talked about it ad nauseum. I’d nod as though I had any idea what he was saying until I could no longer feign interest. At that point I’d just pretend I was having a stroke until he changed the subject. (I’m an experienced mom. Not a parenting expert. There’s a difference.)

But as little as I understood about the pixelated worlds he was creating, I knew he was doing just that: creating.

Surely this was different than spending the same amount of time parked like a sloth in front The Regular Show or something equally useless. (Make no mistakes, as a woman who can quote full episodes of Friends, and considered pretending she was sick to watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt straight through, I’m not jumping on a soapbox.)

And while the AAP still sets recommendations of no more than 2 hours per day for children and adolescents (zero for kids under 2), the evolution of technology may require a restructuring of these guidelines.

With that understanding, I’ve changed my approach.

There are two different kinds of screen time that I consider.

Creation and Consumption

Overall, it’s required a reconciliation that technology and screens are not just a distraction, but also, amazing tools used to educate and provide information. We would never chastise the child or parent who upon being asked a question, pulled a heavy encyclopedia from the shelf to find the answer. This is the new method of research. Lessons in the dewy decimal system have been replaced with how to find reliable resources on the internet.

Using Youtube to learn guitar chords, or find inspiration for a science project comes with a more generous window than videos of cats pretending they’re dead when you dress them in costumes. (side note: HILARIOUS)

My husband, who is a graphic designer has given my son a few lessons in Illustrator and Photoshop; time that was used no less creatively than time drawing together at the kitchen table.

One particularly grueling snow day, I suggested he sit down and write a story. He protested until I offered to let him type it on the computer. Suddenly, instead of being the idiot who suggested school work on an otherwise sacred day, I was a hero. This novelty is sure to wear off, but for now, he still sits down and spins tales on occasion.

We’ve composed terrible songs in Garageband one day, and recorded sessions of living room rock outs that sound like drunk Guns N’ Roses marching in a Mummers Parade the next.

In these scenarios, the wheels keep turning. There’s engagement, and discourse. A completely different experience than when they’re in consumption mode. In consumption mode, you could throw a package of hot dogs at their heads, make full contact, and never get a reaction. And while I’m all about self regulation, witnessing that zombie state for too long makes me twitchy.

I know that any time my kids are spending with a screen in front of their faces is time taken away from doing something else. Playing outside or having legit tactile experiences can’t be replicated by glowing rectangles. But there’s no reason to write off all the reading, art, and learning that they can facilitate simply because it’s not delivered in the same form we grew up with.