Bring back play: Screen time parenting

Victoria S.
September 19, 2018
When we consider why our kids are so entranced by the screens in their homes, we need to consider all the factors involved so we can get them up and playing again. To do that, we need to take a long look at ourselves to see how our actions—both consciously through the rules we set and unconsciously through our actions—can affect our kids’ screen habits for better or worse.

Kids learn by watching

The average adult spends 47 hours in front of screens every week,¹ a little bit longer than they typically spend at their day jobs. We’ve all heard that kids learn by watching, so if your 6-11 year-old sees you binge-watching Netflix while scrolling through Instagram, guess what they might start wanting to do? You guessed it—they’re following in our footsteps. These days, our kids are spending more time in front of screens than ever. The average screen time for kids age 6-11 is 33 hours per week—more than a typical part-time job¹ and over 20 more hours than some psychologists recommend⁶. As our kids learn, we as parents have a responsibility to watch what we’re teaching—even if we aren’t teaching with words.
“My kids often tell me that it isn't fair because I spend so much time on my computer.” -Survey Respondent

How much screen time should parents allow?

Our kids learn to love screen time by watching us—but do we let them indulge? 1 in 5 parents don’t set any screen time rules for their kids, despite the AAP recommendation that digital media exposure should be limited for children of all ages.4 But some, around 36 percent, will set some kind of screen time limit on weekdays. And around 6 percent of parents prohibit weekday screen time altogether.¹
“A tablet is like a sweet—it isn’t good for you every day.” -Survey Respondent
So which strategy is best? Which will send your kid on a path of creativity, independence, and responsibility? Every family is different, and nobody can tell you what will work in your home and what won’t. Working out the right screen time rules for your family is a very personal matter—and it can change as your child gains in maturity and develops outside interests. The most important part of setting rules is talking about it to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Is screen time too valuable to our kids?

When it comes to setting rules around screen time, many parents share a similar philosophy: good behavior earns screen time and bad behavior limits it. 79 percent of parents take away screen time for bad behavior and 50 percent of parents use it as a reward for doing homework, chores, and other productive activities.¹ And it’s no wonder this carrot-and-stick philosophy is so popular—it’s operant conditioning, the same method we often use to train pets.
“If his grades go down or if he doesn't spend time outdoors going on a bike ride etc, or exercise, we will take away his tablet.” -Survey Respondent
With addictive screen time on the line, kids are likely to behave better and work harder in order to gain screen time or avoid losing their allotted amount. And for many parents, the resulting clean room and emptied dishwasher makes the strategy worthwhile. But many psychologists and doctors recommend against using screen time as a carrot or a stick when teaching good behavior and responsibility.5 When parents use screen time as a primary reward and punishment, they are teaching that screens are desirable. Kids will learn to measure how “good” they’ve been by how much screen time they’re allowed. In effect, they associate “good” with “screen” and “bad” with “no screen” during their most formative years.
“Sometimes we have taken away his screen time, but I think that just makes him want more screen time. It makes it more valuable to him.” -Survey Respondent
This conditions children to believe that screen time is better than other activities. It places screen time at the top of the playtime hierarchy compared to other things, such as reading, playing outside, or seeing friends. At the extreme, other kinds of play become just another chore to suffer through on the journey to screen time—and that takes the magic out of imaginative play. If free play isn’t done freely, it loses so much of what makes it beneficial for development.

Safety first, and safety foremost

Example-setting, screen time rules, and behavioral conditioning are some of the more direct ways that a parent’s attitude towards technology can affect the way their kids grow up. Some connections are a lot more subtle and more difficult to recognize. Remember when we talked about playing in the park, the backyard, and the neighborhood in the last chapter? A significant percentage of us were able to play freely when we were younger. Our kids, not so much. And why is that? Simply put, over 70 percent of parents believe that the world is a more dangerous place for kids today than it was when we were growing up—even though child mortality rates have dropped by nearly half since the 1990’s².
“In my day, you didn't have to worry about bad things happening and you could trust your kids outside. Now you can't trust anything.” -Survey Respondent
Despite that, many parents fervently believe that taking eyes off their kids could put them in very real danger. And even though reports of missing children have declined steeply since the 1990s², 62 percent of parents we surveyed are more concerned about their child being abducted by a stranger than about other health and safety hazards.¹ Barely half the parents we surveyed are concerned about their kids having too much screen time. Even fewer parents, at 42 percent, are concerned that their kids aren’t able to exercise their creativity and imagination. And only 40 percent of parents are concerned about their kids’ shortage of outdoor play.¹ In a way, it makes a lot of sense. Kidnapping and physical harm are visceral and emotional topics, whereas screen addiction and physical/mental stagnation—while very real and serious—don’t have that same sense of urgency and fear behind them.
"In the world we live in, I am afraid to let my kids leave my house without their phones.” -Survey Respondent
So why would a caregiver keep their 6-11 year-old indoors on a screen in the name of safety when, statistically speaking, it’s safer than ever outdoors? In many cases, the answer is technology. More specifically, it’s what Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY calls “availability bias.3

What is the availability bias?

When parents watch the news, see TV shows, read articles online, or see scary headlines while scrolling on social media, they see abduction, murder, and other truly sad and scary situations. While these situations are statistically rare, they’re all over the news and all over the plots of our TV shows and movies. And it’s the headline we remember, not the statistics. Then when we think about letting our kid walk alone to the neighbor’s house and wonder if it’s safe, our minds swerve right back into those headlines. We see them so often. Stuff like that must happen all the time. And even though it doesn’t happen all the time, our brains don’t work like that. We intuitively gauge frequency by how often we remember hearing about or seeing something. Through our technology, media tells us to be scared for our kids, no matter what the statistics say. And since these scary headlines are readily available, our brains tell us that these situations are common.
“These misperceived risks put inordinate demands on parents’ time for very little in the way of benefit, creating stressed-out parents and kids.3” -Steven Horwitz, PHD
So we keep our kids in sight. And when we can’t keep them in sight because we’re busy, we keep them indoors. Steven Horwitz says this preventative step might actually hurt our kids more than it helps them.3 Because we aren’t seeing headlines everywhere we look about what can happen when our kids get less exercise, more eye strain, less mental stimulation, fewer chances to exercise their vast imaginations. That’s just not as sensational.

Power to the parent

When we think about own habits, rules, and behaviors like this, it’s easy to feel a little guilty—but there’s no need for guilt. Technology is addictive and it’s pervasive. And that’s not your fault. You are the only one that can help your child become the creative, healthy intelligent person that he or she is meant to be. Now all you have to do is get the rest of the family on the same page. Read more to see how to handle the times your family disagrees about screen time, smartphones, and digital diet.  

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1. Nationally representative online survey of 1,403 U.S. parents of children aged 6-11 conducted by Republic Wireless; May 2018 2. "There's Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America." The Washington Post. April 14, 2015. 3. "The Risks of Mental Shortcuts about Risks." Join Me at, Where the Free-Range Movement Continues! 4. "American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use." Site Title. 5. Owenz, Meghan. "Screen-Time Should NOT Be a Reward." August 21, 2018. 6.Owenz, Meghan. "Screen Time Recommendations For Kids By Age. Screen-Free Parenting's Personal Screen Use Guidelines." September 15, 2016.
About The Study:
The Relay Bring Back Play Study was fielded online by Republic Wireless from April 27, 2018 to May 2, 2018 in partnership with Critical Mix, a global insights data provider and owner of consumer online survey panel, OneOpinion. A total of 1,403 parents of children aged 6-11 were interviewed across the US. The margin of sampling error for total respondents (N=1,403) is +2.6 percentage points.
About Critical Mix
Critical Mix creates insights that drive business decisions with easy, collaborative tools to access global target audiences, program engaging surveys and visualize results. Insights professionals around the world rely on Critical Mix’s simplified solutions to innovate and grow. Critical Mix is passionate about providing the best customer experience in the industry. Supporting every project with a dedicated, always-available team of professionals who anticipate needs and provide thoughtful customer care. The company operates globally with locations throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. Call us at 1-800-651-8240 or email

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