Updated: Jan 6
With distance learning and more time being spent at home, parents are wondering if kids are spending too much time in front of the screen. Research is starting to show that it is more about what is on the screen and how we interact with content rather than how much time we spend on it. This doesn’t mean you can be on your screen all day, but maybe we should focus on what our children are doing on their screens rather than how much time they are spending on them.
Active vs Passive Screen Time
Is scrolling through an Instagram feed the same thing as having FaceTime with a grandparent? Is taking an exercise class online the same thing as watching a TV show? Researchers are starting to break down screen time into two types: Active and Passive.
In a recent review, researchers found that screen time like watching TV and playing certain video games had a negative impact on academic performance but playing active (exercise) video games and using social interaction apps (FaceTime) did not impact academic performance the same way. So what is active and passive screen time?
Active screen time is when your child is engaging either mentally or physically with the content on the screen. This could be recording a video of themselves or dancing along with a video. They can be talking online to their teacher as they follow along on a task. This requires some level of engagement with the content that is being presented to them.
Passive screen time is more mindless, effortless time spent on the screen. This is when we scroll through our Instagram feed or quietly watch TV. Video games like CandyCrush where it’s more repetitive motions than strategy or problem solving. You are sedentary, not physically active. You don’t need to think about what you are doing as you are doing it.
Passive is best in moderation, passive can become active. Watching a TV show isn’t always bad, it’s when we binge that it turns negative. Scrolling on Instagram quietly is passive but turning to your partner and asking what they think of the picture just made that screen time active. Watching a cooking show is passive, taking an online cooking class is active. As a parent, you can regulate the type of screen time and even turn passive screen time into active screen time!
What Can A Parent Do About Screen Time?
In 2015 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) gathered experts from various fields to discuss children growing up in a digital world. Overarching themes of that conference showed that content mattered and how parents role-modeled/regulated their digital use was important too. Here are a few things you can do at home with your child’s screen time:
Role-model technology use and set clear boundaries. Show kids how to manage online time by creating offline time yourself. Have clear times when technology is ok and times when the screens are off. Screen time shouldn’t be a babysitter, reward or punishment. Create a plan around screen time that works for your family. Remember, passive screen time is part of our modern world, so show them the time and place for it!
Content matters, mix it up! Encourage more active screen time than passive screen time. Have content where kids get up and move, or content that encourages them to create something. Get content that is culturally diverse too, the online world should represent the real world!
Turn off before bedtime. Have a routine where screen time is off before bedtime to avoid the negative consequences of screen time. The blue light from your digital screen impacts your sleep cycle and makes it hard to unwind. Screen time impacts the reward center of the brain which is why it can be hard to get kids off the screen. Setting a routine provides clear expectations and turning off before dark helps the body unwind.
Don’t just monitor, interact with your child too! Maybe you watch a movie together and talk about it. Or play a game that requires strategy with two people. Remember, it’s not just what is on the screen but how we engage with the screen too. Show them the online etiquette and behavior you expect out of them by navigating the online world together!
Offline doesn’t have to compete with online. Both online and offline can reinforce each other. We did things before the internet! If your child loves Minecraft, have blocks around the house for offline time. Do they just love Paw Patrol? Have stuffed animals around the house they can turn into characters from their favorite shows. But remember, offline doesn’t have to be the same as online. We can’t recreate the Pokemon world but we can wonder about dragons and come up with our own super powers!
As we move forward in the digital world, more research is still needed on what is the best way to use screen time at young ages. You can refer to the AAP guidelines and speak with your pediatrician about screen time if you’re concerned. Screen time, active or passive, doesn’t replace real time interactions or going outside. However, as research grows, parents can shift their mindset; it’s beneficial to look at WHAT your child is doing on their screen so you can worry less about HOW LONG they are spending on it.