Monday, July 31, 2017

In Defense of "Screens"

One of the most controversial topics I ever touch on is the issue of “screens.” There are a lot of strong feelings on the topic, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I fall squarely on the side of more options rather than less, fewer limits rather than more. Seeing as this topic is a big one, though, I wanted to take some time to explore why I feel the way I do, how electronics fit into unschooling, the importance of self-direction, and some reasons why screens might not really be so scary. I hope that, whether you agree with me or not, you find some thoughts worth considering and links worth reading in this exploration of the important place screens can have in a child’s life.


When I think about the distinguishing features of unschooling, one of the first things that comes to mind (I would think unsurprisingly) is that learning is self-directed, which means the learner themselves is deciding what activities to pursue. When self-direction is the goal, a myriad of options are usually given by the adults in a child’s life, a variety of tools made available. Unschooling, to me, is all about providing more options, more choice, more freedom in learning. So I find myself puzzled when some choose instead to narrow options, allowing children to “self-direct” only in a range deemed acceptable by concerned adults. While it’s undeniably important for adults to provide help, support, and guidance, choosing to cut out--or severely limit--one of the biggest available windows into the wider world seems counter-intuitive.

My sister and I are part of the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet. My family got our fancy dial-up service when I was 5 or 6, my sister a couple of years younger, and we delighted in Neopets and other online games, the ability to make our own pages and blogs, to search out any questions we had (though admittedly there was a far smaller database of information to be had 20 years ago), to chat with friends, and to find communities of people who shared experiences and interests that I didn’t have access to in my daily in-person life. My life was intimately shaped by this new technology in overwhelmingly positive ways, and it most certainly lead to friendships, real world connections to local groups and events, and important discoveries--like my love of blogging and my sister’s love of fiction writing.

Sometimes people, in their advocacy for a screen-free childhood, say some variation of can’t you feel what it does to you? And I can. I feel it opening up possibilities.


While some people are convinced that there’s solid science on how awful screens are for children (no thanks to the prevalence of scare-mongering pop-science pieces that show up with startling regularity), the reality is a lot more complicated, and there is no scientific consensus that Screens Are Bad. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics backed off of its hardline--and severely outdated--guidelines on screen use for children last fall, as evidence of the positive aspects continues to build. For the most part, the fear around screen use seems to be the same old fear that crops up any time something new comes into popular usage, and while there’s still plenty to learn about how current technology affects us, the decisions people are making around “screens” seem to have far more to do with fear than science. This article, though a few years old, still does a very good job of addressing the “history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.”

Even when it’s accepted that all screen use might not be bad, the narrative remains that while some people might be fine with “screens,” others will become hopelessly “addicted” if not rigidly controlled. To start with, I’m really uncomfortable with how casually the term “addiction” is thrown around: in the same way an overly controlling boss isn’t “OCD” and a friend who gets upset faster than expected isn’t “bipolar,” a child who spends more time online than their parent would like isn’t “addicted.” It’s important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes “video game addiction” only in the section reserved for subjects which need further study, and while the DSM certainly isn’t infallible, that’s a good sign of how little evidence there currently is to support the addiction argument. Undoubtedly almost any activity can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but to single out any one activity as being more dangerous without sufficient evidence seems unreasonable. And while parents certainly want to help their children make good choices, their children will eventually--sooner rather than later if they’re in their teens--be making ALL of their own decisions, so shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn self-regulation? And if the goal is self-regulation, doesn’t it make sense to let children get as much practice at making their own choices as possible, before they’re out on their own for real? As one of my favorite quotes from Alfie Kohn says, “'The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Or put a different way by Mimi Ito: “The longer parents play time cop, the longer it takes for kids to learn self-control.”


It’s undeniable that the internet provides access to a repository of information unlike any other in human history, and with that in mind, deciding children are better off screen free seems extremely limiting. But even beyond that, “merely” playing on computers (or gaming devices, or phones…), one of the biggest targets of anti-screen rhetoric, is also a positive part of many people’s lives. In a truly excellent piece by Peter Gray, he references studies showing some of the effects of gaming: “Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players' scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games.” He further elaborates on the social aspects of gaming, pointing out that “Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships. Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”

The image many have in their minds of lone individuals glued to their screens like zombies, cut off from all interactions with others, just doesn’t reflect reality in the majority of cases. Whether it’s gaming, TV shows, social media sites, blogging, or anything else, “screen time” is usually “social time” in one way or another.

A frequently expressed “socialization” concern in regards to school-free learners is that they won’t share common experiences with their schooled peers, and yet I’ve often thought that shared culture--shared arts and media--is a better point over which to bond than shared institutionalization. While culture is experienced in different ways, both online and off, it most certainly includes TV shows and video games, web comics and YouTube channels, social media sites and blogs. Finding people who love the same things you do is one of the great joys of the internet, and is often the spark for friendships online and off.

On the other side of things, parents of school-free learners often express concerns over negative content in popular media: racism, sexism, homophobia and the like. While that’s certainly a big issue, I’ve always thought the best way to learn to think critically about the media we consume is to interact with and interrogate it, to have thoughtful discussions about what is done well and poorly in any given show or game (or book, for that matter). I’d never suggest that adults leave children to fend for themselves, without involvement or guidance, and instead I think parents can help their children learn to think about what they’re playing or watching by playing and watching it with them, and having those discussions from the time a child is young.

Some of the most frequent questions I get about my unschooling experience are about passion: What were your passions? How did you discover your passions? What did your parents do to help you find your passions? And my partial answer to the last of those has to be that they didn’t treat my interests with fear and disdain. They let me have my own interests--my own passions--even when they didn’t understand or “get” them.

You can’t choose what someone else cares about. It doesn’t matter if they’re your children; their minds are their own, and if you’re serious about self-directed learning, then their interests must be allowed to be their own as well.

Right now, I love makeup. Love it. I spend hours watching YouTube tutorials and unboxings, reading product reviews, sorting through my makeup collection, putting on my makeup… For me it’s a form of artistic expression, something I can get lost in, by all judges a true passion. Yet to many people this would seem like a mind numbingly boring pursuit. They’d find it shallow and pointless.

On the other hand, I’ve never been very into video games: I find them uninteresting, and even when a game initially seems interesting, I find it bores me incredibly quickly. But that doesn’t mean I see them as a lesser pursuit, or see my interests as in any way superior.

It’s often hard to see, from the outside, what someone else is getting out of an activity or interest that we don’t share, but rest assured that they are getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t be doing it. And if you try and get involved, or talk to someone about the things they care about, you might just start to see why they’re so passionate.

Or you could just dismiss it out of hand, miss an opportunity to get a window into someone else’s world, and crush a budding passion.


Sometimes I spend too much time scrolling endlessly through Facebook, or watching YouTube videos, or reading a really long piece of investigative journalism. I consider the time spent to be “too much” because my leg falls asleep from sitting too long, or I regret staying up as late as I did, or I wish I’d gone out to the garden while the sun was still up. But as an adult--and as a teenager who didn’t have “screen limits”--those decisions are mine to own and the consequences are naturally occurring (as opposed to punishments, which some parents name “consequences” in order to make themselves feel more justified). Once again I return to the concept of self-direction being crucial to unschooling, and to be truly self-directed is to sometimes direct ourselves into choices we regret. That’s just part of learning, no matter what age we are.

I also see a big difference between parents intervening in an actual problem, and parents creating arbitrary limits in order to feel some control over possibly preventing future problems (which may never manifest). There’s a difference between saying “you’ve been playing that game for a really long time, let’s go do something different now” and an inflexible rule that children are only allowed two hours of screen time per day. And there’s a difference between deciding not to let a 2 year old spend time playing on a tablet versus deciding that the bulk of childhood should be spent without access to a whole category of play and learning.


In deciding that screen time is automatically damaging--or at the very least suspect--and casting almost any other activity as better, a whole bunch of unneeded conflict arises: suddenly it’s screens versus books, screens versus outdoor play, screens versus family time. Electronics become the forbidden fruit, made more tempting by its exclusion from a list of acceptable activities. In pitting activities against each other in such a way, the supposed “good” activities can be made to feel like a chore (something I explored recently in my post Summer Rules?). A child is told they have go outside for an hour before they can go online. This then becomes an interminable hour where all they do is kick at leaves and wander around restlessly, unable to think of anything but how much they want to talk to their friend who’s only online for a couple more hours, because they live on opposite sides of the globe in a very different timezone…

Then there’s the matter of how frequently hypocrisy comes into play, when a parent spends all day inside on their phone and the computer, yet kicks their children outside and admonishes them to “go play!” instead of allowing them to spend a similar amount of time on their respective devices. If you want to instill a joy of the outdoors (or reading, or anything else you deem important) you have to show that you take joy in it, yourself. As Lori Pickett said in a wonderful post on screen time:
Whenever you make it about “give up this thing you really love,” you are probably going to lose. Even if you win on paper, you are still losing in the ways that count. You’re losing credibility. You’re losing their attention. You’re losing their trust. 
You are sending all kinds of subtle, between-the-lines messages about what’s broccoli and what’s candy. You’re sending those messages every day when you choose how to spend your free time, too. Before they learn how to velcro their shoes, kids know when your words don’t match your actions. 
We have to change our entire approach and start saying, “If these things are really important to us — as a family, as a community, as a society — then we need to start enjoying them, together.”

Whether people are delighted by the technology available to us or concerned by its rising prevalence, the reality is that it’s here to stay, and has become a vital tool in virtually every sphere of life. Children growing up today need to understand it because they need to have the skills to navigate this world. There’s beauty in balance, but what balance means to each individual is something they have to figure out for themselves, and while caring adults should be ready to offer guidance to the children in their lives, ultimately those children are their own people, and need to to be making their own choices--or at least moving in a direction of increasing freedom of choice. Self-direction is such a powerful thing, and when adults can move past their fear, there’s such a wealth of learning and fun and connection to be had with those oft reviled screens. So many opportunities! Almost limitless options. Personally, I’m grateful to have always had so many “screens” in my life.

*I put screens in quotations because I find it a very reductive and misleading way to talk about a whole range of different devices.

 If you appreciate my work, please consider becoming a supporter on Patreon!


  1. You've given me a lot to think about and given a voice to some thoughts I've had on the topic of "screens" and my children. I am going to read this again with my 11 & 8 year olds tomorrow and discuss. Thank you!

  2. Screens are addictive. I see problems that need to be addressed with my 5 yr old after an hour of watching. It's good to keep an eye out for controlling behavior on the parents part but so far we're addressing the lack of control that cross I if he watches for too long.

    1. This is also my experience. And I think it ends up being a case of it is certainly a problem for some. My son, lacks self regulation when it comes to many things. His father struggles with addiction and for this reason I find myself being very concerned. The effect on his behavior is marked and real. Although I agree with nearly this whole article in regards to children who can self regulate TV, I do think parents of certain children will know their child is not having a normal response to this stimulus. My son who is now 8 is now much better at many aspects of self regulation but TV remains an area of conflict. Our whole house works better when it is completely disallowed. However when he becomes and adult he will be in a world where he has to make these decisions himself, so I am torn as to best approach.

  3. I find that most people I know, when they find out we don't limit "screen time" say the same as the comments above. "It must work okay for your children but mine get out of control, angry, fill in the blank." I thought the same before we released control because that is how my kids acted! Because we were controlling their time! We continue to have conversations with them when we see more negative tones or things but that usually has to do with something else. Our oldest was who we were most concerned about but he has found his own regulation and uses tv or gaming much less than a younger brother. He finds being outside refreshing and he regulates his day. It did take some months for him to figure it out though. 😃

  4. I also wrote an entry about this before because people are telling me to shutdown our tv and gadgets for my 3 yr old. Apparently I didn't do so because that is her learning visual and she can learn so much with it. I just give up the gadget but the television is really hard to resist.

    Here's my input:

  5. "...Punishments, which some parents name consequences..." I literally learned the word consequence before punishment because of something like this.

  6. I really appreciate your perspective. I am very wary of screens because of how personally addicted I am. Particularly to tv. I feel myself sucked into tv and unable to accomplish my daily life. As a child tv was my babysitter, my company, my distraction in a pretty lonely/unhappy childhood.

    Before I was a parent I nannied for 2 families and babysat for many others. On the whole those than majorly limited tv we're much more independent players, and seemed more emotionally balanced. Which has prompted me to limit screens with my 17 mo daughter. I have never put a video or show on for her. But we often video chat on the phone and I do let her "play" on the phone. Just touch it, make the screen move, disorder all my settings. I know I will let her watch something at some point particularly as she starts verbalizing a desire. And I remember one child who would ask for YouTube videos of animals around 2 years old. This seemed like a good screen compromise, as it felt more "real" somehow. His personality seemed to fit more into the non-screen kids...

    I really appreciate your point that forbidding something makes it more desirable. And also that not regulating allows self-regulation. I want my daughter to have an innate understanding of computers and the internet as a tool of her pursuit of whatever she wants to pursue. I think I still have time to figure out exactly how and when I will give her access. Thanks for this food for thought.

  7. Hey, is that an Acer Chromebook 11 that I see in that picture?

    1. It is indeed! Mine broke a couple of months ago though, so it's not what I currently have (Now I have an Asus Chromebook instead).

  8. I agree that simply arbitrarily limiting screen time without context is unhelpful.

    I'm currently helping my partner and her kid through unschooling and unfortunately we have found immense negative interactions and behaviors from our child after he's been left to watch whatever he wanted on youtube.

    He would always choose shows or channels that were run by meme-riddled live streamers and always he would immitate the bad characters and behaviors to the point of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse towards his parents. We had to limit his options on youtube and guide him towards netflix kids.

    So it really is important to actively involve yourself in your childs exposure to all of the content the internet has to offer. There is some seriously dark and brainless things out there which have evidently left their marks on our kid.

    I'm from a public school background and I'm also a computer programmer. So this unschooling thing is a bit of a challenge for me, not because I don't believe in it, but because our kid doesn't seem to be as self directed or knowledge motivated as I was when I was his age. It's frustrating to me when he actively opposes trying new things, places, or experiences. Especially when he also gets violent because I would like to watch something I'm interested in but he doesn't care about because it isn't his video game.

    We have since made several changes and added some structure to our days as well as maturity is also likely helping out. He still says he wants to kill me every once and a while when he disagrees about some simple issue.

    It is really important to understand that the technology landscape today is very different than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago.