Managing Screen Time Without Guilt - Happy as a Mother

Managing Screen Time Without Guilt

with Clinical Psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Adams


  • Is The Research Around Screen Time Really That Scary? 
  • Not All Screen Time Is Equal
  • Using Screen Time As A Tool
  • Impact of Parental Capacity On Screen Time
  • Setting Boundaries With Screen Time
  • Release The Guilt!

Screens have become such an integrated part of our lives and are so accessible. We can feel torn between using screens as a tool and feeling like we shouldn’t use them because we’ve been told they’re bad for our kids. Then to top it off, we have the pressure and worries of the pandemic as we navigate working from home and distance learning. Instead of approaching screen time as all-or-nothing, it’s best to look at the value and purpose of screen time in different situations. Ultimately, screen time is just another tool for us to use confidently in our parenting toolbox. 

Dr. Elizabeth Adams joins to help break down what research is telling us about screen time and then how to use screen time as a tool, so you can feel equipped to make a decision with little guilt.

Is The Research Around Screen Time Really That Scary?

There seems to be the impression that a lot of evidence around screen usage shows how damaging it is for children. But Dr. Elizabeth says, “All or nothing thinking around screen time is really dangerous. It just leads to guilt, and it’s not realistic.” 

Each organization has different recommendations for screen times which tells us even experts don’t agree! And these recommendations are based on the idea that screen time should be educational. “Using screen time to give a parent a break is a different goal. It’s not a bad goal, but it’s a different goal,” Dr. Eizabeth explains. If you’re at the end of your rope and just need to put dinner on the table that’s a different goal. 

There is no research to say screen time is harmful or damaging. It measures the opportunity costs which we will talk more about in a second. But, “The question should be more subtle than yes or no to screen time,” Dr. Elizabeth explains.

Not All Screen Time Is Equal

Kids 3+ can learn from screens (or TV shows). Most of the research on this was done around Sesame Street which was meant to get kids ages 3-5 ready for school, and it’s worked. 

“Showing kids can learn from screens tells us that the quality of the screen time does matter,” Dr. Elizabeth says. Randomized control studies of Sesame Street proved that the program impacted school readiness and helped with retention once the student started school. The largest impact was made for kids with fewer resources. 

Using Screen Time As a Tool

Some of the research is scary, but let’s weigh out both sides of it, so parents can be informed. 

Kids under one don’t learn from screen time. We saw this in two studies. One used videos to familiarize English-speaking babies to Mandarin. Young children have the capacity to learn any language they’re exposed to, so you would expect the baby to recognize intonations in Mandarin not typically heard in English. Babies being taught by the screen couldn’t do this, but infants who were taught by a person speaking Mandarin to them did show recognition. Another study had young children try to mimic a task from television. They were unable to complete the task but kids who mimicked a person demonstrating the task could.

Most research shows kids under two don’t learn from screen time. For this age, screen time is more about entertainment. The World Health Organization recommends kids under one have no screen time, but it’s based on the educational opportunity costs, not that the screen time is harmful to the kids. 

When looking at opportunity costs, these guidelines are developed around education as the goal. It assumes that if the baby devours screen time, he or she is missing out on being talked to and read to. If your child watches Sesame Street for an hour while you make dinner, and the actual opportunity cost is a raging, hungry, overwhelmed parent, the baby isn’t losing a lot with the screen time.

When these studies are on the news and in journals, they’re often sensationalized. The headline scares you with all the negative connections to more screen time, and then they don’t do a good job of really digging into the study to parse out the nuances. 

A study showed the relationship between screen time led to lower test scores and less physical health, but these studies have significant flaws. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. The studies don’t mention that young children who consume more screen time may also be in a lower socioeconomic class. They also leave out the literacy of parents, the number of books in a home, and the availability of healthy food. We know all of these things significantly contribute to childhood development and health.

And some studies present the groups as a high screen time group and a low screen time group and focus on the differences, but ignore the other variables that affect childhood development. There is also almost no research on different qualities of screen time and the different impact that could have on development. 

But there is preliminary research to show that kids can learn from online apps. However, there isn’t research to know how it compares to in-person learning, the difference in the quality of an app, and how that compares to the quality of what’s available for in-person learning. 

The only scary research is for kids under one who spend hours and hours in front of a screen. The opportunity costs of spending so much time in front of a screen delays their language skills. There is something to be said for giving kids agency and guiding them to make good decisions rather than just outlawing all screen time. 

Parents need to understand the opportunity costs of screen time for both them and their children. This is about moderation, so what does that actually look like? There isn’t a perfect number. It’s going to change based on circumstance and the age of the child. 

Impact of Parental Capacity on Screen Time

Our capacity is tethered to things like the pandemic and our children. What works one day might not work the next day. Let’s see screens as a tool. If you need downtime or nothing else is available, there is no evidence to show screen time is damaging. You’re not ruining your kids by making the right choice for you at this time.

When you have the capacity to limit screen time and introduce new rules, do it. And navigating screen time with older kids is different than younger kids, but the whole idea that using screen time during a pandemic is somehow damaging your kids is just sensational. There is nothing to feel guilty about when using screen time as a tool. 

Although if it feels like screen time is your ONLY tool, please speak to a therapist or a doctor. There are other tools and strategies available. If you’re waking up at capacity, there might be an underlying condition such as postpartum depression or anxiety. There is help for that. There are even hotlines you can text if you’re not comfortable talking with someone just yet. 

Setting Boundaries with Screen Time

When a child is tantruming because screens are no longer accessible or it seems to be a habit to turn to a screen, these could be signs it’s time to put boundaries in place. Maybe watch one movie a day over the weekend, and that’s it. Or only allow a set amount of time on digital games. 

In a pandemic, screen usage is going to be higher than it was before. This is how we’re doing everything. A lot of screen time during distance learning and shut-downs isn’t a bad decision. You’re allowing yourself to work and continue to provide for your child! This is a blip on the radar, and we’ll have better boundaries around screen time once we survive it. 

Release the Guilt!

It’s okay to use screen time as a tool and there are even some high-quality ways to use it. Screen time is not damaging your child if it is used in moderation. We are all navigating a pandemic together. Screens are currently our gateway to education, socialization, entertainment, and so on. There is no perfect amount and not all screen time is created equal. 

Remember if it feels like screen time is your only tool, you need more support. Reach out to your doctor, a counselor, a hotline, or even a friend. There are strategies available for you.

And if releasing the guilt is something you struggle with, check our Surviving Mom Guilt Workshop to help you get rid of it!

Dr. Elizabeth Adams is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in child development, social-emotional growth and learning, child regulation and behavior, and academic achievement.  She has been working in the field of child mental health and education for over 15 years. Elizabeth provides training and education to students and professionals, presented at national and international conferences, published articles and book chapters, and has been interviewed by magazines and radio programs regarding her expertise in child development and behavior. 

Elizabeth is the co-founder of Ello which revolutionizes the way children learn to read by combining real books with artificial intelligence technology and, in so doing, gives each child their own expert teacher.







  2. […] “Kids don’t see time the way we do,” she explained. Ten minutes doesn’t matter when you just want to watch Paw Patrol. […]

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