Why I'm Pro-Screen Time for Kids

The other day, my 12-year-old called me downstairs. I came into the kitchen and groaned; she was propped on the speckled counter, staring into her iPhone.

“Haven’t you had enough screen time today?” I asked. “Put your phone away.”

“Mom, wait,” she implored, “this is what I wanted to show you.” She then handed me her phone where a video was playing on the screen: In a cleverly condensed time-lapse, spanning 60 seconds, she had captured herself meticulously applying face paint — in a whimsical rainbow pattern fanning out from her eyes, nose and mouth — and then carefully removing it so the video both began and ended with a fresh face.

“Whoa!” was my immediate reply, before asking that she replay it. “Where did you even learn to DO that?” I asked — in a nod to both the face painting and the videography. Standing in the kitchen, I had a startling realization: I have witnessed my daughter’s creativity simultaneously dwindle and blossom upon the introduction of an iPhone into her life.

First things first: times have definitely changed. My daughter no longer spends hours at the kitchen table illustrating books she has written or compiling intricate outfits for the models in her Fashion Plates (the vintage 1978 toy made a come back about five years ago). That said, exposure to pop culture has urged her toward songwriting. There are days, after school, when she locks herself in her bedroom turned recording studio — likely gleaning song lyrics from a Karaoke app, plucking out some chords she learned from watching a YouTube video — and sings  her heart out while recording it all on her phone. Alice has also become quite the photographer. She assembles still-life arrangements, capturing empty Izze bottles in just the right sunlight, and happily making mini-adjustments while snapping away; she equally enjoys capturing everyday objects — from mesh window screens and verdant blades of grass — using a telephoto lens she got in her Christmas stocking (a whopping $10 for a series of snap-on lenses, a tripod and remote shutter control). Her creations are stunning and capture the gamut of activities in which she participates — from the long lashes of her favorite horse at the barn to her mud-caked Converse All-Stars after a walk in the woods. It’s been inspiring to witness her creativity being sparked during otherwise quotidian activities — activities she especially looks forward to when she can further fine-tune her eye for details.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’(AAP)  report on Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents highlights the detrimental effects of prolonged exposure. Screen time has been shown to be a risk factor in obesity and depression; evidence suggests media use can negatively affect sleep which in turn affects academic performance in school; and spending time on social media has been shown to correlate with a decreased interest in “real life” relationships. Now factor in exposure to high-risk behaviours including alcohol, tobacco and sex and you might be questioning the decision to get your kid a phone in the first place. But herein lies the rub: screens can be tools to create, connect and learn—but they are not the only means of doing any of these things. For school-aged children and adolescents, the AAP promotes balancing media use with other healthy behaviors.  

The AAP suggests parents work with school-aged children to create a Family Media Use Plan to create healthy parameters around screen time and media exposure. Other tips for parents to employ? Place consistent limits on the time spent using media; designate media-free time together, such as during dinner or while driving; establish ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety — all among recommendations by the AAP for adolescent media use. I waited for what felt like forever (to my kids) to get them phones in the first place; my oldest was in 8th grade and my youngest in 5th when the iPhone SE finally appeared under the tree as holiday gifts. My younger daughter’s device was simply wifi enabled — read, she has no phone number. But the times they are a changin’. I finally caved, and yesterday a new SIM card arrived. Now that she is playing JV sports at school, I need her to have a phone in order to call from the road and update me on pick-up times at school. Which means we are about to go back to the drawing board and establish some new guidelines for moving forward.

My daughter and I continue to weigh the pros and cons of screen time, which means we’ve not rendered the iPhone purely a distraction. While on the one hand I worry that her creativity is being stymied at every turn by technology — and the hours she inevitably spends each day on SnapChat and Instagram — she is being inspired by a whole world of creatives online. These “friends” not only use their phones to share what they’ve created (think photo of that Impressionist painting you nailed in art class?) but also credit their phones as the very vehicles responsible for bringing about said creativity (think all the Insta photos marked #nofilter, #itookthispicturemyself). At the end of the day, it’s all about balance. 

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