Too Much Screen Time

This COVID-19 pandemic is creating enormous stress for all of us. Our resilience is being put to the test. Most of us are now under some kind of stay-in-place directive. Kids are at home and on screens more than ever. If you are a parent, you might be worrying about how much screen time your kids are having. Here’s my recommendation for you: Don’t. 

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Too Much Screen Time

There’s nothing like a pandemic to put our worries into perspective. Right now, many of us our scrambling to stay healthy, keep our jobs or some sort of income, pay rent, and have enough food and toilet paper. Our kids having too much screen time should be pretty far down on our list of concerns. We are in survival mode. 

Here’s one way of thinking about screen time during this pandemic. If you ever had an introduction to psychology course, you probably came across American psychologist Dr. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The basic idea behind his pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs is that we must meet our more basic needs at the bottom of this pyramid (e.g., air, food, water, sleep, health) before focusing on needs that are higher on the pyramid (e.g., esteem, power, contemplating the meaning of life). While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has received a fair amount of criticism, there’s no denying its intuitive appeal. For instance, it makes sense that, at the moment we are choking on a hot dog, we don’t care how many “Likes” our Facebook post received.

We are in a version of survival mode so screens get a free pass. Now, we should still use common sense here. For instance, I don’t think it’s prudent to allow a 6-year-old watch a slasher film marathon or play Grand Theft Auto V. There are plenty of developmentally appropriate screen time options out there. Likewise, allowing kids to binge-watch Netflix for 16-hours a day for weeks on end is a bit excessive. If your child’s school has gone online (Yay – MORE screen time!), he/she still needs to do their schoolwork each day and meet their other basic needs.

When Excessive Screen Time Might Cause Some Problems

While I don’t think we should worry about kids having too much screen time during this pandemic, it’s still likely that excessive screen time can cause some problems. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we still have basic needs for sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. If screen time starts to squeeze out these basic needs, we will start to pay a price at some point.

As a personal example, I’ve started to play a role-playing game, Divinity: Original Sin 2 on the Xbox One S online with my best friend. A few times we stayed up until 2 a.m., but I still woke up early because my body clock wouldn’t let me sleep later. I was quite the grouch the next morning because I was “functioning” on less than 5 hours of sleep. I’m sure you are familiar with the feeling. Research supports that sleep deprivation leads to a myriad of negative effects. While I did have a lot of fun playing the game with my friend, I, along with the rest of my family, paid the price the next day.

We all have basic human needs that must be met, and excessive screen time can be problematic when it begins to infringe upon these basic needs. While this may be true, when it comes to the concerns about too much screen time, we might not be giving our incredible levels of adaptation and resilience enough credit. Historically, we had to survive quite harsh conditions (e.g., limited access to food and water, no AC/heating, no vaccines/antibiotics, little concept about basic sanitation, lack of any formal education for most kids). When we step back and view too much screen time in a historical light, the perceived harms of too much screen time are rather insignificant.

Given that we are so adaptive and resilient, we can probably spend quite a bit of time on our screens every day before we, or our kids, ever truly start to suffer harm. It is difficult to provide a specific number of hours per day of screen time per day at which the harms start to outweigh the benefits with any certainty. However, I’d say that, as long was we, are meeting our basic physical and psychological needs “good enough,” we, and our kids, are probably doing just fine. 

“Ideal” vs. “Harmful”

A powerful bit of wisdom comes from Voltaire in the form of, “The Perfect is the enemy of the Good.” As we watch our kids spending hours on end using Snapchat, creating TikToks, or playing Fortnite, we (sometimes) think to ourselves,  “Couldn’t they be doing something better with their time?” Funny, this exact thought struck me as I watched Tiger King over the course of the past week. I totally missed out on writing poetry and piano practice—DOH!

Over time, I’ve become more convinced that when parents (and many professionals) worry about the harms of screen time, what we are saying is that kids could be doing something more productive, educational, useful, edifying, or enlightening with their time. We are measuring their “wasted” time on the screen against some mythical “ideal” of he/she becoming a virtuoso on violin, fluent in foreign languages, acing all of their classes, blowing the lid off the SAT, becoming the next Roger Federer, etc. “Oh my gosh! My handsome little Ian is so bright and talented, but he just wants to waste his time playing video games!”

This judgment is based on an opportunity cost way of thinking. That is, what is the loss in terms of potential gain from other activities that a child could be reaping instead of what he/she is doing on the screen? There’s a problem with this way of thinking. We want our kids to be living ideally…some version of Voltaire’s “the Perfect.” However, there’s a difference between missing out on opportunities that could be beneficial and actual harm. When it comes to our kids’ screen time, we are often conflating “more beneficial” with “harm.”

There’s some truth to the idea that kids are missing out on opportunities because of their screen time. I mean, I kind of wish that I could replace all the hours I spent as a kid watching Happy Days, Gilligan’s Island, Three’s Company, and the Brady Bunch with piano practice. I’d have become pretty darn good! Still, that isn’t to say that all the TV watching and video game playing as a kid  actually harmed me. Did your screen time as a kid harm you? Are you less happy or successful now because of it?

The Takeaway

We are in a pandemic crisis right now. It’s okay that our kids are spending more time on their screens. It’s more appropriate to direct our attention to higher priorities. That doesn’t mean that you should not set any limits whatsoever. Ensure that they get enough sleep, still get their schoolwork done, and get some exercise. Mix in some board and card games, arts and crafts, hiking, and so on. But give yourself permission not to stress about their screen time during this crisis. You don’t need any more stress on your plate right now.