How Much Screen Time Is Okay? Remember This: Screen Time Is Dessert!

We all know it’s not good to use screens all the time, but the problem is that sometimes they are just... so... darn... tempting!

Imagine that you had a choice like this for dinner every night:

You might choose the sandwich because it tastes good and is good for you. But this choice may be difficult because that dessert is designed to give you an explosion of pleasure.

Kids often face a similar choice when they come home from school:

All of the things on the left can give you good feelings (even taking out the trash for your parents!! shh!!), but you might have to work a little harder or wait a little longer to get those good feelings. The things on the right are designed to give instant and automatic good feelings.

Something big and a little bit scary has happened in our world over the last decade or so. For many years, the number of kids and teens who were depressed or had anxiety was always about the same level. But right around the middle of the 2000s, that number started to go up--way up!

Scientists say there is more than one reason why this has happened, but one important reason is that screen time has also gone up since the mid-2000s.

Some new inventions came out around that time. Can you think of any? Here are a few:

Before these inventions, if you wanted to surf the internet or play a video game, there were specific places you had to do that, like your living room on a computer or TV. Now, with smartphones and tablets, we can do those things anywhere, anytime we like.

Before, if you wanted a new video game, you would have to go to a store and spend as much as $50 for it. Now you can open up an app store and download thousands of addicting games for free or dirt cheap!

Your parents probably think they're all cool and say things like, "I just don't understand kids these days! I didn't sit around doing screens all the time! I went outside and did important things like break-dancing and riding bikes without a helmet!"

But what your parents might not realize is that screens have changed. The only reason they were outside wearing Hammer pants and getting concussions was because their favorite shows usually ended around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and there was nothing on except boring news shows until 8:00. If they had been able to pull up Netflix and binge-watch 70 hours of their favorite show, your parents might never have left the house!

What we're seeing is this. Kids come home from a long day of school and face this choice:

Maybe they come home excited about a new game they heard about at school, so they download it and play for a couple hours. Then, after dinner, their brother or sister is watching something funny on YouTube or Netflix, so they join in for a while.

Most of the day goes like that, and when bedtime comes around and the screens finally go off, many kids will then have a feeling of emptiness inside. Maybe they just feel a little irritable or a little sad. Maybe they feel that they didn't really do anything good that day or that something is missing from their life. And if they spend a lot of days like this, they might start developing that anxiety and depression that scientists have been watching rise.

It's the same with food. If someone eats only sweets and junk food, their body will be starved of the nutrition it needs. They are eating only empty calories.

So what I hope you will remember is summarized in just four words: screen time is dessert. If you were to treat screen time as though it were dessert, what would that mean?

If you want to have a healthy life, fill your body with good foods every day. Then, after that, go ahead and enjoy a little dessert! It will taste extra sweet if you are balancing it with other foods.

​If you want to have a happy life, fill each day with plenty of good activities: learning things, building things, playing with family and friends...

​Then, after a good full day accomplishing lots of things, go ahead and enjoy some screen time! Screens aren't necessarily a bad thing; but they are when we do too much and not enough of the other things we need to be doing for happiness.

Finally, when your head hits the pillow at night, you will feel like your life has meaning, that you are doing important things, that you are going big places, that life is full and happy.

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Further reading: There are many books and articles dealing with this important topic. One that I found useful is iGen by Jean M. Twenge.

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