You are Asking the Wrong Question


The Hidden Premise

In my role as a digital literacy coach, I often hear similar questions. One of those questions is, “How much screen time should my child have?”

This is the wrong question to ask. Did you catch the negative hidden premise within the question? The hidden premise is that screen time is bad. We know that not all screen time is the same and we shouldn’t just lump it all together.

The question parents should be asking is, “What is my child doing on a screen?”

There is a difference between watching a YouTube video of a child opening toys and watching a YouTube video of how to build a specialised structure in Minecraft. There is a difference between watching a movie on Netflix and creating your own movie on your iPad. What we do on the screen matters.


Life is all about balance. When it comes to what we eat, we should have a balanced diet. We should have a balance between work and play. Too much of one thing, no matter what it is, throws off our balance.

If a child just wants to read all the time and they are staying up late at night and not getting enough sleep, it is affecting another part of their life in a negative way. They need to adjust and rebalance.

So when it comes to technology, the same principle of balance applies. If we are using technology and it is affecting other parts of our lives, we need to rebalance.

So where do you start?

We need to start by having conversations with our children and agree on the things that we value and should have in our lives. What is important to you and your family? Some of the needs might include exercise, healthy food, fun, reading, sleep, work and family time. 

A time based approach

One way to look at this is to think about how often you should be doing these things that are important to you. For example, should you be reading every day? What about 4-5 times a week? Once a week? 

This model requires you to create times and keep track of those times. There are a lot of hidden premises and assumptions that you will have to take into account. Do you put time limits on all activities? For example, do you limit the amount of time that you child is allowed to read? Do you have categories for different activities? Do you make some activities with unlimited amount of time with others that have limits?

That gets into a territory where you have to address your own biases and hidden premises. If a child is allowed unlimited reading time, are they allowed to read as much as they want on an iPad? If not, you are showing your bias towards technology. Someone might say that they can get distracted on a device and switch between different apps and that is why it is different. That is just an excuse. There are always ways to see what they have been doing on their device or to even lock a device in a specific app.

Pause, reflect, and rebalance approach

A different approach is to rethink time and limits. My question is: What do we do as adults? Do we limit our times when it comes to activities? Can I spend a whole afternoon reading a book that I just couldn’t put down?  Sure. Do I sometimes spend a weekend on a Netflix binge of a show that I love? Of course things like that happen.

Pause, Reflect, rebalance.

So I need to make sure that I am regularly pausing and reflecting what is important to me and if my life is getting out of balance. I do this on a regular basis throughout the day. And I model it to my kids. I ask them what they have been doing and what they might do next. We hear the word ‘balance’ a lot in our house. I am trying to help them to pause, reflect and rebalance.

Of course there are times when they just want to spend more time on what they are doing. And I try to give them agency to be able to make their own choices. But there are also times when I tell them that they have already spent a lot of time doing something and they should do something else to balance the things that are important to them and to us as a family.

You are a role model

Remember, through this whole process, you are a role model to your kids. Whatever you are doing, you are modelling that to your kids. We all know there isn’t such thing as a perfect parent out there. But we need to be aware of what we are doing because balance applies to us too.

One thing that is important is assumptions. When one of my kids sees me on my phone, they may assume that I am scrolling through Facebook (could be true), reading the news (also could be true) or watching something about photography on YouTube (definitely could be true). One of the things I find really helpful when on a device is naming what I am doing to address these assumptions. 

If we are all sitting around and I pick up my phone, I can just say out loud what I am doing. I might say, “I am looking up a recipe for something to eat for dinner this weekend.” Or “I am ordering some groceries.” Or even, “I am playing a game.” Naming what I am doing eliminates any assumptions and also keeps me honest as to my time on my device.

So at the end of the day, you have to find something that works for you. But let’s start by addressing the hidden premise of screen time. Not all screen time is the same and what we do on screens matters. Have conversations with your kids about what is important to you and them and look for an approach that can help you to balance these things in your life and the lives of your children. They will need support and reminders and you may need those too. You are in this together as a family. See how you can support approach screen time and balance in a way that is manageable and promotes agency in everyone involved.


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