Close-up of a toddler and mother using a touch screen tablet.
New guidelines on screen time for young children
00:42 - Source: CNN Business
CNN  — 

Conversations with kids force us to think hard about the power of words.

While adults tend to view language as fluid and open to interpretation, kids tend to be fairly rigid about it. They want clear explanations about what a word means. They also want to know where the thing or concept that is represented by the word, fits in their fairly simplistic, proto-Kantian, this-is-good-this-is-bad moral universe.

If parents want to express nuance, they have to be extremely careful with word choice, and even more careful with how they define it.

The words I’ve been struggling with recently are “screen time.” When my eldest son was younger, and screen time meant either watching “Caillou” or dragging a 2-D train around the surface of an iPad, I didn’t think much of it. Both were fairly straightforward and benign activities. But now that he’s 7, and “screen time” can be used for an ever-expanding range of activities, I’ve begun to doubt its utility. Can everything from logic video games, to high adrenaline racing games, to Facetime with grandma, to wildlife documentaries, to looking at family photos, to ninja cartoons really all belong in one category?

Perhaps if “screen time” were a neutral term, this wouldn’t matter. But the phrase is loaded with negative connotations, and is associated with guilt and addiction. My 7-year-old son has already internalized this screen-time-equals-bad-time equation and has begun to turn it back on me. I was recently cooking dinner and consulting a recipe on my phone when he, unsatisfied with my ability to play with him in the moment, told me I was addicted to my phone. “I just don’t want to burn the potatoes!” I explained, in self-defense. I could have shown him my below average screen time metrics, but I doubt it would have helped.

“Screen time,” I think I am done with you. You’re outdated and clumsy and I don’t like the way you conflate and taint every single activity done on a digital device, no matter it’s value. I also don’t appreciate the way people present you in opposition to real life when the reality is so much more complicated. With you gone, I’ll actually be able to have the kind of conversations I should be having with my children about digital life. I’ll be able to talk about the value of one digital activity at a time, exploring both the pleasures and pitfalls of plugging in.

Screen time is an outdated term

For most of its history, “screen time” referred to how much time an actor got on screen. It wasn’t until the 1990s when it began to be applied to how much time we spent looking at screens. As we’ve begun to spend more time interacting digitally, the use of the phrase, and the concern over what it represents, has grown.

But today, with screens being ubiquitous and quotidian, the catchall phrase no longer works. Screens are where we keep our cookbooks, CD collections, research libraries, banks, newspapers, teacher-parent and teacher-student communications and the list goes on and on.

Our digital lives are “way more complex than we ever imagined they would be, even 10 years ago. The language we use just isn’t useful anymore. It’s not granular enough, and doesn’t capture the nuances of life,” said Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University and co-author of a recent editorial on the limits of the screen time concept for JAMA Pediatrics.

“It’s still default for many of us to see a screen and say ‘that is not life well-lived.’ But my lived experience as a person and an academic tells me it is just not true,” she added, noting that both she and her teenage children do a fair amount of meaningful socializing and academic work on screens.

In her editorial, Whitlock, along with her co-author Philipp K. Masur, considered the latest research on screen time and well-being and academic performance and found the results to be mixed and ultimately inconclusive. More so, the metric of time revealed itself to be only a small piece of the puzzle in figuring out how being online affects us.

There are so many variables in the way screens are used: What kind of device are we on? Are we being active or passive? What kind of content are we engaging with? These all play a role in determining the potential benefits or harms of being plugged-in. Yet, our language and framing remains preoccupied exclusively with how long we’re spending. More is always bad, and less is always good.

“I don’t like the stigma attached to ‘screen time,’ or the way it is coded. It makes us talk about the things our kids love as if they are drugs. They are not drugs, even if they sometimes have some things wrong with them,” said Jordan Shapiro, author of “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.”

Shapiro thinks we’ve scapegoated the screen as the problem, when it’s not. The problem is the way we use screens, and it’s something parents should be helping their kids with from a young age.

What to say instead

Whitlock said giving up the phrase “screen time” shouldn’t mean that parents stop thinking about the broader effects, good and bad, digital engagement has on our lives. Our lives are fundamentally different than they were a generation ago, with massive shifts to our sense of time and space. Being home no longer means what it used to now that the world is at our fingertips. This isn’t always a good thing.

Also, while the screens themselves may not be a problem, many of the products for screens, like YouTube and Instagram, are designed to be attention-grabbing. For many, especially teenagers, self-regulation in the face of these products can be hard. Whitlock suggests parents help their children regulate by way of conversations with their kids about the addictive properties of these products, and also intervene by way of installing blackout times on routers and cellular connection.

She also suggests parents voyage with their children to some darker corners of the internet, before they get there with their friends. This might include, for instance, some fairly uncomfortable, but highly educational, shared internet porn viewing when kids are in their tween years. “Tell them: This is what you are going to see and this is what you should know about it,” she said.

As for how to talk about the very wide range of not-obviously-bad, but perhaps not-obviously-good activities kids might get into through digital devices, it’s much more complicated.

Instead of considering whether they were on screens, and how much time they spent there, Shapiro thinks we should be probing the nature of the activity itself. “Ask yourself if they are using screens in a way that allows them to develop autonomy, and a moral and ethical consciousness,” he said.

As a first step, I decided to replace “screen time,” with the names of specific digital activities my son likes: racing video games, television, Facetime, coding games, etc. They will all be considered on their own terms, with their own good and bad qualities taken into consideration.

Also, some will broader categories, like YouTube, will require subcategories. If my son is messing around on his own on the site, watching unboxing videos and toy demonstrations, then that’s not terribly productive. But if we are co-viewing videos about a particular subject that could make for a rich shared experience. Lately he’s taken an interest in cars and we spend 15 minutes every evening watching videos about cars together, learning about new technologies and the physics of automobile races. Through it, he’s also getting a taste of the world of status symbols, which, as Shapiro reminded me, is on us to deconstruct for him.

Our newfound, more nuanced approach to his time online doesn’t mean his dad and I will go soft in other areas. We’ll still make sure he gets enough exercise, reads books, and spends time outdoors. We just won’t pit those activities against the time spent on devices, or arrange them in a tidy hierarchy in which all things digital are immediately thrust to the bottom.

If it all goes well, my son will soon forget the concept of “screen time” and come to understand the complexity of digital life. There will be no more badgering one another for consulting a recipe, and more thought-provoking conversation about what we are doing on our devices, and how it makes us think and feel.

Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.