Balancing Screen Time and Face Time

by Cecelia Wallin

We all understand that our children live vastly different lives in relation to sophisticated technologies and social media than we or even the children growing up ten years ago did. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) reports that preschool-aged children spend an average of 32 hours a week watching one kind of screen or another. And a recent study done by the Kaiser Foundation showed that children between the ages of 8 and 18 spent on average 53 hours a week engaged in various kinds of technology. These numbers reflect an inordinate amount of screen time, resulting in children having fewer face-to-face interactions with others, more distractions, less time for quiet, and fewer opportunities for different kinds of play, exploration, and interaction with the natural world.

As both the library media specialist at Chiaravalle for the past 11 years and the mother of four sons, aged seven to seventeen, I find myself continually engrossed with the questions and discussion about what it means for our children to be growing up in such a highly-connected, screen-saturated world. How does a reduction in face-to-face experiences with people and the rest of the living world affect children physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually? Are we providing our children with both time and places to be free for a while from the noise and distractions of our high-tech world? What are we doing to help them develop the inner-life and critical thinking skills that will allow them one day to give mature and ethical direction to the immense power that technology holds? How do we find balance in our own busy and “connected” lives, so we can support our children finding it in theirs?

The rate and speed with which technology and social media have permeated our lives have left little opportunity to pause and ponder the effect that our engagement with these digital tools and media is having on our children and us. I believe, however, that it is essential that both educators and parents take the time to think about and discuss these kinds of questions. I welcome the opportunity on this blog to begin a conversation with the Chiaravalle community.

The kind of critical thinking and reflection that I think is important is by no means anti-technology. For my seventeen-year-old son who is nonverbal, innovations in technology have opened up the world, providing him a means to access and express himself to his wider community that was simply not possible before the iPodTouch and texting. I see the ingenuity and joy that my seven-year-old demonstrates as he makes videos of his tortoise and the family cat.

More generally, I witness every day in my work with students the potential of these tools to foster learning, creativity, and investigation; to address the particular learning needs of children with varying strengths, challenges, and interests; and to connect and entertain. I see the sense of competency and autonomy that children gain through their interactions with technology.

That said, I also believe that we must be vigilant about acknowledging and understanding the impact that technology and media can have on our children’s development and social functioning. It is essential to remember, as humans throughout time and cultures have, that the introduction of new tools and innovations alter the way we live in the world and engage with each other. The experiences that our children have with today’s technology influence how they learn and how they think.

Numerous recent studies are showing the negative effects of children spending more time playing video games and surfing the internet and less time engaged in other kinds of activities and unstructured play on both their cognitive development and health (Alliance for Childhood). Researchers are  finding that being bombarded with a constant stream of electronic information reduces our ability to pay attention, remember, and to move from one task to another efficiently (Clifford Nass 2009).

Children need to be provided with many opportunities to learn multiple steps of a process or operation, to focus on a single task without interruption, to coordinate and strengthen their bodies, and to contemplate and reflect. We want our children to be able to sustain their attention and delay gratification. And I would hope, being the school librarian, that we want our children to be able to read deeply, meaning they achieve an emotional connection to the text and greater depth of interpretation. If we don’t give them the opportunities to develop and practice these skills and abilities, they won’t learn and acquire them.

Both common sense and research supports that long hours in front of screens do not provide children with the these opportunities. David Sobel writes, “When children in and out of school are using computers, they are not doing something else.  If we understand what they are not doing as well as what they are doing, we will be in a better position to decide what place computers should have in children’s lives.”

I believe it simply comes down to what kinds of experiences we want for our children. And our understanding that through their experiences, children develop their skills and abilities and become who they will be. We also know that emotionally engaging encounters with the real, living world enrich childhood. Do we value childhood experiences such as combing for rocks in the sand, climbing trees with a friend, watching the robin eat the worm? Do we want our children to know the blissful state of losing oneself in a book? Do we want them to play checkers and paint pictures? Do we want them to know quiet and stillness?

Parents, however, should not feel alone in guiding their children towards a balanced use of technology and creating these types of experiences. Lowell Monke, in his essay “Unplugged Schools” argues that one of schooling’s most important tasks is “to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.” And MIT Professor Sherry Turkle states that it is essential that a K-12 education provide children with time for stillness and contemplation.

In a myriad of ways, a Montessori education can be a great counter balance to technology excess. The Montessori classroom provides experiential and sensorial hands-on learning. It allows for practice, exploration, and reflection. Through completing a work cycle independently, children are afforded opportunities for sustained engagement and focus. In the classroom, the sophisticated processes of critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and kinesthetic coordination appropriately mature out of children’s interaction with concrete materials, caring adults, and their peers.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the Montessori philosophy understands the primacy of interpersonal relationships. In Education and Peace, Maria Montessori wrote, “The individual rarely lives a lives a life entirely apart from others; rather he is meant to associate with many others.” Research strongly indicates that face-to-face relationships with people are critical experiences for young children. Through their interactions with screens, children cannot learn the subtle but very sophisticated ways to “read people”, the fine distinctions inherent in how we use language, and, perhaps most significantly, empathy. They learn these important skills by being around and interacting with people. And through their interactions with others, our children learn to appreciate the value of deep human engagement and interdependence.

If you are interested in further reading, here are a few recommendations:

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other Sherry Turkle

Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age William Powers

iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan

In the Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains Nicholas Carr

Mind in the Making:The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs Ellen Galinsky

Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence Jane Healy

I also suggest viewing the PBS Frontline Broadcast of the documentary Digital Nation: Life on the Frontier http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/view/


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post Cecelia. In addition to monitoring our children’s use of technology, we, as parents, need to reflect on our own use of technology. Being on our phones in the presence of our children is not time truly with them. I see so many parents pushing their children in strollers, talking on their phones while the children rides along as if alone. Some of my favorite memories are walks with my children, talking with them, pointing out and identifying things as we walked, answering their questions, singing together..such precious time. I fear that the expectation that parents be constantly connected to work and friends is robbing them of time with their children that neither of them will get back. In this world where we are expected to multi-task at all times, there are times when we should do only one thing: be with our children.

    Comment by Nancy Syburg — May 2, 2011 @ 8:29 am

  2. Great post….technology is a blessing but must be managed carefully and thoughtfully like anything else we do. Too much of anything is not healthy. Nancy’s comments about being connected on cell phones when out with children is so true. If you walk down at the lake there are people exercising to music or talking on a bluetooth, people texting or sitting on a bench using their computer…or reading their Kindle. There are still adults that text while driving! Balance is the operative word….and one way to find balance is to turn off electronics when doing another task. One thing at a time is…well…relaxing. Thanks for the post Cecelia.

    Comment by Kathy Noone — May 3, 2011 @ 4:56 pm

  3. What is an appropriate amount of screen time for different age children?

    Comment by Dorothy Schmid — May 4, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  4. Dorothy, I don’t think that there is a one-size-fits-all answer to your question regarding the appropriate amount of screen time for children of varying ages. I believe it is something that families need to think about and come to their own decisions, considering who their children are and the kinds of experiences and activities that they feel are important for their children to have and do. There are only so many hours in a day. So if a seven-year-old comes home from school and plays on the computer until dinner, it means that they have not had the opportunity to go outside or play with lego or help prepare the meal while talking to a parent. If you believe these experiences are important, then the answer to how much screen time is appropriate becomes clear.

    With regard to very young children, I concur with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children under the age of two should have no screen time. To thrive, babies and young toddlers need a lot of interaction with loving adults and the opportunity to play and explore their environment. Watching a screen does not provide children with these necessary experiences.

    As children get older, parents will have to help them learn how to manage their time. If our children are choosing screen time to the exclusion of almost everything else, then we probably should set some limits and facilitate their engagement in other kinds of activities and play. Ultimately, we want them to be able to shape their days in a way that incorporates a variety of experiences, including time to be idle so they have the opportunity for introspection.

    I think it is also important to be involved in and knowledgeable about our children’s digital lives. If we are aware of what they are doing when in front of a screen–the games they play, the shows they watch, and the web sites they visit–we are in a better position to talk about and guide them towards a balanced use of technology.

    Finally, as Nancy stated so well in her comment, it is important for us adults to model balanced media usage. Children will learn about appropriate management of their screen time by observing what we do.

    Comment by Cecelia Wallin — May 6, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  5. The New York Times has a wonderful article today (link below) in the Science section that comments on the very questions we are all asking about “screen time” for children and the specific effect too much screen time can have on our children. There appears to be a lot of research going on in the academic world looking at various aspects of screen time and it’s relationship to age, individual needs of the child, and the different ways that too much can be truly be problematic. I thought it was relevant to this discussion.


    Comment by Kathy Noone — May 10, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

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