Is “Screen Time” Hurting Your Son’s Reading Development? A School Librarian Weighs In

You grew up with a single TV in the living room and maybe a second in your parents’ bedroom, but children today are surrounded by electronic screens. Smartphones, tablets, laptop computers, and video gaming consoles are only the tip of the iceberg. Once-exotic electronic devices like smartwatches and virtual reality goggles have already made inroads into our everyday existence.

As electronic screens steadily advance into every facet of their children’s lives, parents are asking, “How much is too much?”

Conventional wisdom tells us too much time staring passively at electronic screens can harm a child’s cognitive development. Studies have shown that excessive screen time may:

An emerging school of thought, however, is that it’s not the sheer number of hours in front of electronic screens that matter. It’s the quality of the screen time.

After years of recommending a strict limit of two hours of screen time per day for children over 2 and no screen time for younger children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recognized the latest findings from parenting experts and provided new guidelines this fall.

While maintaining that, “Tech use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits,” the AAP now says, “The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.”

A Library In Their Pockets

Elizabeth Kiley, Lower School librarian at The Fessenden School, agrees. Today’s children are born into a digital world, Elizabeth says; digital devices will be part of who they are throughout their lives.

“Trying to create strict limits on screen time isn’t really reflective of the idea that the world has changed for our young children, and being a digital citizen is something that we’re responsible for helping them understand,” she points out.

In Elizabeth’s view, screen time can be valuable time if parents are present and participate in the choices their children make for viewing and interacting with their screens, whether they’re phones, tablets, or televisions.

As a school librarian, Elizabeth is particularly interested in fostering a lifelong love of reading and an appreciation for the written word in her young students. Contrary to what some may think, screen time doesn’t subtract from that at all, she says. In fact, electronic devices can be useful for selecting, organizing, and—yes—reading books.

“It’s a terrific way to have a collection that you have chosen and have it be portable,” Elizabeth says. “We have some students in fourth grade and up who are curating terrific reading material and literally carrying in their pockets dozens of books. I think that’s fantastic.”

As with almost anything your children do, screen time is most valuable when you carefully and consciously monitor it. Here are Elizabeth’s top three tips for preventing your child’s screen time from becoming junk time.

1. Fully research the apps your child uses.

Before you allow your child to use an app on a smartphone or a tablet, Elizabeth says, do your due diligence. Many so-called “educational” apps are anything but, she warns. Be especially wary of apps that link to other apps or allow children to buy things through the app (“in-app purchases”).

“Children work through the apps pretty quickly, especially if they’re games. Not all games are bad. There’s a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking in many games, but some of those games link to other apps or other games,” Elizabeth says.

Elizabeth recommends visiting for reviews of educational apps.

2. Seek out interactive screen time over passive screen time.

When your parents worried about screen time, they worried about the hours you spent slack-jawed and staring in front of Saturday morning cartoons. Electronic devices are now much more interactive—if you choose the right applications.

Look for opportunities for your child to connect with other people through their screens, rather than simply watching, Elizabeth counsels.

“If your child is Skyping with a family member, that’s interactive screen time. It’s different than passively watching YouTube videos.”

3. Model healthy screen time.

How you use electronic devices is just as important as how your child uses them. You’re setting the example for your child.

“Adults modeling a decrease in the amount of time they’re holding a phone or having a screen in front of them is really essential to their children engaging in healthy ways with screens,” Elizabeth says.

Put down the phone when you’re talking to your children, Elizabeth advises. Make sure they understand, “I’m putting it aside because it’s important to me to be with you.”

How do you encourage healthy screen time with your children?

As your children get older, electronic devices will only become more and more a part of their everyday lives. How do you make sure the time your children spend with screens is quality time? Share your parenting tips in the comments section below.

For more reflections on raising children from experienced educators like Elizabeth Kiley, subscribe to weekly updates from the Fessy-Den Blog.

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