A study of kids’ screen time explains the vicious cycle that makes parents unable to say no

Better than Paw Patrol.
Better than Paw Patrol.
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The relationship between parents and their kids’ tech is complicated. While they loathe the idea of their kids being glued to screens, they also appreciate the moments of relief screens bring.

The inner turmoil might help to explain a new study on screen time, which finds that although parents say the activity they prefer for their kids is outdoor play, more often than not, their kids end up inside on screens.

The study, conducted by US toy company Melissa and Doug and survey company Gallup, surveyed some 1,200 families from all 50 states including the District of Columbia (the surveys were administered in English and Spanish). It asked parents of kids aged 2-10 how they wished their children would spend their time. The majority said they wanted them playing outside:

And here’s how they actually spend their time, according to their parents:

“Children’s preferences for screen-based play are winning out over parents’ preferences,” the report says.

There are endless reasons parents why make the choices they do around screens: the need to work, or cook dinner, or call a fellow parent to discuss a looming art project about ancient Egypt. We need a moment (we’d like more than a moment, but we need a moment).

However, those decisions to de-stress in the short term—defaulting to the iPad path of least resistance—lead to more stress in the long term over bigger priorities. Parents whose kids spend more than three hours a day on screen-based play (compared to those who spend less than that) are:

  • 67% more likely to worry about their child’s stress levels
  • 38% more likely to worry about their child’s academic performance
  • 70% more likely to worry about their child’s ability to get along with others

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa and Doug (and a mom of six kids) says parents need to know how important unstructured play—indoors and outdoors—is, and how dangerous technology can be for kids who are too young.

“It’s like giving a kid a little bit of cocaine and telling them to be careful,” she says. In the survey, parents reported their kids spending nearly 19 hours a week in front of screens, more than two-and-a-half times the recommended dosage of media time—and Bernstein assumes that parents wildly underestimate their kids screen time.

“Kids should be involved in imaginative play but tech is the best babysitter in the world,” she says. One major benefit of the tech used for screen time: it’s a sunk cost. In other words, once you buy the device, and the necessary subscriptions, you don’t have to pay an ongoing rate. That’s much cheaper than hiring a human babysitter. But once kids are addicted, many parents feel it’s hard to get them un-addicted.

An easy solution would be to get them outside, away from the temptation of screens, and the majority of parents in the data presented above wanted that for their kids. But apparently, there are a lot of obstacles to getting them outside, according to parents. 

The lack of outdoor activity would be less concerning if kids had more unstructured play indoors. Many parents are aware that this kind of play boosts a child’s creativity and problem solving. But they tend to prioritize structured play outside the home like organized sports, because they believe it boosts self-confidence, and social and academic skills.

When parents of kids from as young as newborns to 10-years-old were asked in the study to say which of 12 qualities offered to them were most important for children to develop by age 10:

  • 60% picked self-confidence
  • 53% said social skills
  • 43% chose academic skills
  • 41% picked discipline

Less attention is paid to how they spend time at home, and so kids end up on screens. Creativity and problem solving came in fifth and sixth on the list, respectively. But problem solving and creativity are a big deal. Many psychologists, including Boston College’s Peter Gray, argue that the lack of play is at the heart of why young adults seem so stressed out and ill-prepared for life today. They didn’t learn how to solve their own problems with other kids, which is what play is often about, so those muscles atrophied. So kids get to college without the social skills and confidence to manage day-to-day life.

Only one in five parents in the study strongly agreed that kids should be bored, even though boredom often leads kids to create their own games and activities. The problem is parents can’t stand the whining and moaning that comes before the kid can actually get to the creating part. “Boredom is the best thing a child can face, and it’s the worst thing a parent can face,” says Bernstein. “It’s panic-inducing.”

And yet, when we weather the panic, the creative juices start flowing.