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The Cs in Children's Screen Time: Some Food for Thought

So it's that time of year again: end of summer holidays, and beginning of blogs and TV shows about screen time restrictions. Should you wean your children off of devices gradually or let them have a last blast before the constraints of the school year kick in?

So it's that time of year again: end of summer holidays, and beginning of blogs and TV shows about screen time restrictions. Should you wean your children off of devices gradually or let them have a last blast before the constraints of the school year kick in?


Whatever your strategy, there is no doubt that screen time is the new treat for children: Screens keep children quiet on the plane and wind them up right after the dinner. They can make children addicted and potentially cause weight issues down the road. They can help children make new friends and lure kids to strangers. And just like with anything that makes children happy but potentially unhealthy and unsafe, parents want to know how early children can have them, how much is too much, which are the bad ones for the body and which are the good ones for the brain. The issue of how much time children spend watching TV has been around for a while, but screen time -understood as ipad apps and video games- has many new ingredients.

Luckily, you don't need to summon the entire alphabet to answer the Ws questions (the what, who, where, when) regarding your child's screen time. Instead, you can be guided by one big letter: the letter C (as in Candy).

Lisa Guernsey, journalist and director of the Early Education Initiative, rightly says that for evaluating screen time, we need to consider 3Cs: the content, the context and the individual child. So, what do the 3Cs mean?


Common sense tells you that the question of how much screen time is too much becomes irrelevant if we don't specify the content. Two hours chatting with friends on Facebook is different from playing Call of Duty. Or from watching others play a video game. The latter has, as Ryan Wyatt, global head of content for gaming at YouTube, says, 'become the new Saturday morning cartoons' for millenials.

Of course content has always been a generation-related issue, but what is different with today's generation is that we all consume and produce volumes of digital content unlike any time in history. So, before you place an alarm clock next to your child, consider the content of the allocated screen time. What program is your child interacting with and is s/he a creator or consumer? The two have very different purposes and challenges.


Unless you are a candy addict, you probably eat sweets only on specific occasions: when you need to achieve something, when you feel lonely, when you're having a good time with friends. Similarly, technologies are used in specific contexts, and these contexts often happen independently from your, or your child's, will. Parents pass their phones back to their children when they are busy with other activities such as driving or shopping (the so-called "pass back effect"). In schools, the use of screens is determined by a particular subject and an individual teacher's practice. These different contexts influence the different experiences your child will have with screens. You therefore need to consider the 'when and where' questions when evaluating screen time.

Individual Child

When you send your younger child off to the playground, you probably won't let them stay outside as late as their older siblings. Or when booking your child's summer camp, you discuss their preferences and review the options with them. Similar principles apply to the digital playground: Some screens are not appropriate for the youngest ones and some games are not suitable for children all together. The third C reminds us that an individual child's needs and preferences will influence all the Ws questions regarding screen time.


The common thread that binds the 3Cs is that they are all closely connected to each other. This means that when one changes, the other two change as well. For example, when the whole family watches TV on a Sunday afternoon and an inappropriate ad pops up, your teenage child might laugh but your three-year-old may be scared. The content is the same but will affect your two children differently. The context of being all together in one room could affect the younger child's reaction. For example, if you console your younger child or not, if she sees her older sibling reaction or not, all could influence the effects of the content.

The interrelationship between the 3Cs brings us to the elephant in the room: if we want to understand the benefits and limitations of specific content and context on individual children, we need to abandon the term 'screen time' all together. Instead, we need to be asking how a specific activity, carried out in a specific context, might contribute to a specific child's knowledge and skills. Again, the letter for capturing these skills is the same as before: C as in vitamin C.

"C skills"

Just like vitamin C protects your child's immune system, so can these C skills protect your child from potentially harmful online content. For scholars concerned with mindfulness, the key in using media is consciousness or conscientious connectivity, a way of being mindful in the digital sphere. For those who have experienced the backlash of negative media attention, compassion is essential.

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning lists 4Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The San Carlos School Board added citizenship, and child experts, professors Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff, list 6Cs for the 21st century: critical thinking, creative innovation, collaboration, communication and content.

Conclusion: Vitamin C and Candy Combined

All these critical skills will help build your child's resilience against cyberbullying and other toxic content they might encounter online. Together with the 3Cs, they will support your child's healthy screen time. So that it's yummy too, remember the candy analogy and the important social role screens play in children's lives. And of course, in all this "Craziness around Changing Childhood Culture", don't forget the importance of green time.