Screen Time Vs Screen Quality: Why the Current Media & Kids Debate is About the Wrong Topic

| May 28, 2013 | 6 Comments

In a recent ALSC – Association for Library Service to Children – blog post, Cen Campbell wrote about the idea that “Screen Time is Bad” and how that is truly not the conversation we want to be having today, in 2013. She goes on to point out that, “What most people mean when they talk about the evils of ‘screen time’ is passive media: television. Reading an ebook, videoconferencing with grandma and grandpa, or showing a child a picture that you’ve just taken of them is NOT the mind-numbing, passive time-waster that concerns many parents, educators, researchers and librarians. The fact that something is on a screen does not make it inherently bad, and the emphasis on time is also a red herring.”

Cen’s post reminded me of a study that came out several years ago, in 2011, about the impact of Sponge Bob vs Caillou on toddlers. The results of this widely reported, but small experimental  study were detailed in the journal Pediatrics, showing that “children who watched 9 minutes of a fast-paced cartoon had impairment in their executive function compared with children who were assigned a drawing task and those who watched educational television.” American kids aged 8-18 watching nearly 8 hours a day of ‘screens’ according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and there is good evidence that the amount of screen time is growing for all age groups, even toddlers (despite the oft repeated recommendation to restrict kids under two to no media at all). This increase in media use by all ages, coupled with some healthy concerns about what media exposure (especially in large quantities) might be doing to young brains, has given many parents and educators pause.

A thoughtful exploration of how ambivalent parents have become trying to navigate this mine-field of media was recently written by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic Monthly, in fact. Rosin notices the same thing Lorraine Akemann of and I noted last fall when we surveyed 100 families in high-tech development of kids apps, when she points out that, “as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children.”

But what many people seem to have missed in the detailed and insightful commentary from the authors of the Sponge Bob vs Caillou study is something I feel I need to highlight once again. What Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH from Seattle Children’s Research Institute at my beloved University of Washington, Seattle says is essential to real dialogue about ‘screen time’ and kids: “the quantity of media consumed has been an unduly emphasized part of the story. It is not that quantity is unimportant, but the effects of media are mediated more by what is watched than how much is watched. Simply put, television is both good and bad: there are good programs and bad ones.” (emphasis mine)

And while the American Pediatrics Association failed to extrapolate from it’s 2011 study beyond television to interactive digital media is not hard for me as a parent and educator to put two and two together. I’ve seen a lot of content on digital touch tablets and it is definitely both good and bad for kids (with a fair amount in between). So it is really isn’t HOW MUCH kids are watching, playing or interacting with screens that matters, but WHAT are they watching and WHO are they playing with …

Now, I may have a crazy view of the world, but as a cultural anthropologist, social worker, mom and educator I cannot understand how we can treat the most precious role we have in life, as caregivers and parents, as something that boils down to time and not quality. I even notice differences between how my child reacts to seeing a feature length film vs 90 minutes of TV shows back to back. And if we watch the movie or participate in ‘screen time’ together as a family, the quality measure changes again. I suspect I’m not brilliant, but just like most parents who notice these things about our kids’ unique interactions with their environment … we mothers are all a bit like Diane Fossey studying a band of gorillas when it comes to our kids. We do it both out of love but also for survival, to understand what our kids need to make it in the world and how to help them navigate a sea of challenges to their attention spans, temperaments and desires.

Results from our survey of 100 early-tech adopting households with kids

Ideally, screen TIME should be reduced (How crazy is nearly 8 hours a day of anything? That’s not balance and common sense tells us all this fact … forget the expensive studies). However, screen QUALITY should be the touchstone and starting point for real dialogue when it comes to media for everyone, not just kids. If you thought our brains were at stake during those awful 1980s commercials about your brain (and then your brain on drugs – aka an egg being fried), we have a whole lot more potentially at stake in the long run with digital saturation. [Nicholas Carr was probably onto something in The Shallows.]

Too much time in front of screens can create lots of different problems for human beings of any age, but by focusing on the ‘time’ aspect, we are not doing much to protect our kids from overexposure to this new media buffet. Instead it seems to just increase the level of anxiety placed on the discussion. I’d like to suggest that we stop talking about ‘screen TIME’ and start talking about ‘screen QUALITY’ instead.

The change in the conversation could be seismic … it is a linguistic trap we have caught ourselves in by asking “How much screen time is too much?” You cannot answer the question without accepting the assumption that ‘time’ is the problem. And while I feel as time-pressed as any parent out there, I bet most of us know, deep down, that it is the quality of our children’s experiences (whether we can be there to share in them or not) that matters most.

Category: All About Apps, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift, Our House

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.