Managing Screen Time: What’s the Right Approach?

By Tracey Dowdy

I recently read an article about Steve Jobs and was surprised to learn he was a “low tech” parent. Does that surprise you? It surprised me. I thought his house would be like that Disney movie Smart House, where the walls are projection screens. Plus, since it’s Steve Jobs’ house, all the floors would be tiled in early generation iPads and MacBooks.

Instead, Jobs limited the amount of screen time his kids were allowed to have. According to Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

After a little research, I found that to be true for a lot of parents who work in the tech industry. Screen time during the week is limited and usually involves homework, and though weekends are more unstructured, use is still managed and monitored.

Is screen time really that big a deal? I’m not proud of it, but I’m pretty sure I wept tears of joy when my toddlers finally sat still in front of Arthur or Sesame Street long enough for me to grab a bathroom break or start dinner. Getting a toddler to engage with a smartphone while you wait for a table at a restaurant or try to get out of Target alive can’t be that bad, right?

It’s less about being “bad” and more about what is age appropriate. Technology use for this generation is intuitive. The same way we don’t remember life without TV or the microwave, our kids don’t know life without smartphones. They are in their bedrooms, their classrooms and in the palms of their hands.

Managing technology, like every other aspect of parenting, can feel a lot like we’re making it all up as we go along. Really, is there an aspect of your life where you feel more vulnerable or more judged than how you parent? But we know not all kids fit the same mold and  you know your children better than any expert or blogger. There’s an excellent article by Judith Newman in The New York Times about how her autistic son Gus relates and interacts with Siri in a way he finds difficult with his parents and others. Obviously, Newman has thought long and hard about Gus’s relationship with Siri and made her choices based on what she feels is most appropriate for her son.

For most kids, limiting technology is a good idea. Overuse has been linked to obesity, sleep problems and academic struggles, as well as social and behavioral issues. For every kid, monitoring technology use is a good idea. While it’s easy to waste time online, there’s a lot of good out there. My daughter fixed her iPhone last week after watching a YouTube video and my other daughter frequently uses her laptop to arrange music and record original pieces. Neither would have passed high school chemistry without online tutorials.

The bottom line is to let common sense be your guide. Passively sitting in front of a TV or computer screen for hours at a time is a far cry from utilizing technology to connect, create, and innovate. Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines or read what sites like Common Sense Media have to say. There’s a lot of good information out there and, as you know, an informed decision is always the best decision.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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