Could Unlimited Screen Time for Kids Actually be Beneficial? An Argument

When my daughter was two months old, a good friend came for a visit with her family. I was excited to show off my new bundle of joy and to swap stories with someone who was also relatively new to the motherhood thing. She asked what I did during the day when I was home alone with my daughter. Did I watch television? Well, not really. I always had it on in the background but I wasn’t really watching. Was I worried about exposing my child to screens, she wondered, innocently?

My heart began racing. Limiting screen time? At two months old?

Surely it didn’t matter that I had the TV on in the background while we went about our day? When she went home, I began my journey down the rabbit hole of online articles and message boards. What did I discover? That television was the devil, and that my sweet child might have already suffered greatly from this early exposure. If I continued in this manner, she would surely have speech delays and social struggles! The same went for computers, tablets and cell phones.

After weeks of more reading, more stressing and more sleepless nights, my husband and I decided that we were going to limit screen time for our child—in a big way. Since the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends no screen time under the age of two, we made sure that the television and computer were never on when our daughter was awake, and we put our cell phones away in drawers throughout the day, only checking them during nap time or bedtime. When my daughter turned two, we allowed her to watch one, 20-minute television show once a week. That’s right. Once a week. Sound extreme? It was. And we felt super proud of ourselves for enforcing these strict screen time guidelines.

We felt super proud of ourselves for enforcing these strict screen time guidelines.

But around the time my daughter turned four, these rules began to cause problems. She started to ask to watch television more regularly and became angry when she was continuously denied. When she would have her weekly television time, she would beg relentlessly for more and it took a long time to recover after the tube was turned off. Sometimes, she would sneak into the living room when we were cooking and try to turn a show on herself. Restricting my daughter’s exposure to screens also started to feel bad for me. I didn’t like arguing with her constantly, and I began to wonder whether the benefits of such restrictions really outweighed the cons. I also wondered whether these studies that vilified screens were really all that reliable.

Had I done enough research?

Recently, I stumbled upon a new “school” of thought: unschooling. Much more than an approach to childhood learning, unschooling is a parenting philosophy that views the child as a whole person worthy of all the same respect and treatment as an adult. Unschoolers have complete trust in children to make decisions for themselves, and restricting food and television (or any activity that brings the child joy and doesn’t harm others) is strongly discouraged. This might sound alarming to traditional parents, but it really speaks to me. I do believe that children are worthy of the same treatment as adults and I’m often appalled by the level of control adults feel is necessary to assert over them. So why is screen time any different?

Maybe it’s not.

In fact, unschoolers have really convincing arguments in favour of unlimited screen time for kids:

It Builds Trust

Allowing children to decide how much television they watch builds trust, in themselves and in their caregivers. Your child is given room to explore and make decisions about what they find enjoyable, and they come to understand that you trust in them to make the right choices for themselves (whether or not it is what you would choose for them).

It Creates a Calmer Home Environment

Parents who aren’t constantly battling their children for control are setting up a calmer and more loving home environment for their kids. Everyone feels more at peace, and kids are more willing to communicate with their parents and make occasional compromises to benefit the whole family.

It Welcomes Learning

Learning occurs in many different ways, none of which is as effective as when children are engaged in things that bring them joy. They might seem to be staring at screens like zombies, but we really don’t know what is happening within them as they watch. Countless times, my daughter has surprised me by coming to me with thoughts or questions after watching television—she asks what words mean, and makes connections between characters, books and things that have gone on in her life—

It Creates Opportunities for Extended Learning

When the screens are off, my daughter acts out shows, writes about them, draws pictures, builds scenes from the stories out of Lego, sings the songs, reads the books…it’s safe to say that she’s not passively engaged with the screens in her life. Rather, I can see first hand how much she gains from them.

It Fosters Connection

This is arguably one of the most important benefits that can come from unlimited screen time. Rather than using screens to pacify children so that we can catch up on housework or get some “time to ourselves,” what if we actually engaged with our child? Perhaps if we took the time to snuggle up and watch together, talked about what we were watching and took turns playing the games, we would start to understand what it is about the media that brings our children joy. Perhaps if we learned the songs with them, acted out the stories, and used these experiences as opportunities to connect with our children, we could create stronger bonds to hopefully last a lifetime.

What if we actually engaged with our child?

Why are we so determined to fight our children and control their use of screens? Why are we so quick to believe studies that don’t necessarily provide accurate or long-term proof to support their claims? Why do we value some forms of entertainment over others? Why do we feel that we know better than our children what makes them (or should make them) happy? And why are we so bent on forcing them to learn the things we think we should know, rather than letting them be our guides?

I don’t claim to have all the answers and am still trying to decide how I feel about this issue, but it’s definitely one worth looking at a little closer.

EDITOR’s NOTE: What’s your stance on screen time with your children? Let us know in the comments of the article’s Facebook section.

Tammy Bravo-Eby

Tammy Bravo-Eby

Tammy Bravo-Eby is a teacher turned stay-at-home-mom who sometimes misses teaching and plays school with her kids to get it out of her system. She lives in Southern Ontario with her husband and two young daughters, and spends evenings writing for her blog Kids Make Mess where she chronicles her messy days doing science experiments and making art with her kids.