What Screen Time Is Better than Others?

By Caroline Knorr
Children Playing Games on a Tablet

With more and more of our lives being lived online, your kids are getting more screen time than ever—about six to nine hours a day, on average. That’s a scary number, but are some types of screen time actually okay?

The experts at Common Sense Media say—absolutely! There’s a big difference between an hour spent scrolling through Instagram and an hour spent learning vocabulary from a smartphone app—or doing math homework on an educational website.

You can maximize your kid’s screen time by considering what they call “The Four C’s”:

  • Connection: It’s really important that kids connect on a personal level with what they’re watching, playing or reading. Are they engaged? Engrossed? Maybe even enlightened? Getting into a story line or identifying with characters primes kids for more learning.
  • Critical Thinking: Look for media that takes a deep dive into a topic, subject or skill. Maybe it’s games in which kids wrestle with ethical dilemmas or strategize about bypassing obstacles. Rote quizzing and simple Q&A-style games may be fun and seem educational, but they may not help kids find deep or long-lasting meaning.
  • Creativity: An important feature of many great learning products is the ability for kids to create new content—a new level for a video game or a song, for instance. Kids can feel more ownership of their learning when they get to put their own spins on the experience.
  • Context: Help your kids understand how their media fits into the larger world. For younger kids in particular, the discussions and activities surrounding games or movies are key. Being with kids while they play or watch, asking questions about what they’re taking away, and doing related offline activities can extend learning.

Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media advises parents to look for educational elements that are “baked-in”—meaning that the learning component of the online educational activity isn’t separate from the fun part.

The online educational activity should also be as safe and private as possible, so there shouldn’t be any ads and links to other places should be as few as possible to decrease the potential for distraction.

Should I install parental control programs?

According to Common Sense Media, the answer is, maybe surprisingly, no. Good old-fashioned parenting is actually the best safeguard against too much screen time and other risks associated with the digital world.

“A recent study showed that most parents don’t use parental control programs, and those that do have no better outcomes than parents who just talk their kids through their expectations, offer guidelines, and establish consequences for misuse,” says Knorr. “And kids whose parents put limits on their media tend to make better choices about what to watch and play, and spend less time overall on media activities.”

Parents should pay attention to how their kids act during and after their screen time. If they’re using age-appropriate, high-quality media for those six to nine hours of screen time, their behavior should be positive and their academic achievement shouldn’t be suffering.

However, if heavy media use is a concern, consider making a schedule that fits your family’s needs. Try weekly screen time limits, limits on the kinds of devices your kids can use or guidelines for the types of programs, games, apps and websites they can use.

Having a conversation about setting limits can be a useful opportunity to learn about what shows your children like watching or what apps they most enjoy using.

Parental controls may be useful as a last resort for families in a time of crisis, such as a child who is using the internet and social media for illegal or dangerous activities.

Need help setting screen time boundaries with your kids? It’s time for The Smart Talk.

How much screen time is too much?

We asked the experts!

Caroline Knorr is the senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. She and her teenage son live in the San Francisco Bay area.

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