The Benefits of Screen Time in Play That Parents Need to Know

Not all screen time is created equal. Learn how to prioritize quality, learning, and social connection on the computer, tablet, phone, and TV.

Kids playing on their screens together.

Valentina Barreto / Stocksy

My son Shaiyar was all of five when the pandemic started. As school—and life, pretty much—moved online, I worried about his social-emotional development. After all, kindergarten on a computer screen couldn’t be the best way for him to grow and learn, right?

But as the pandemic continued (and continued), we started to adjust to life on screen. Like all parents, I worried frequently about the dangers of screen time, which are well-documented and well-known.

Every parent knows too much screen time can cause developmental delays and/or have social implications. Then there are the behavioral problems that can arise, particularly in children who spend two hours a day (or more) on the TV, computer, tablet, or phone. And let’s not forget the physical effects, too. Too much screen time can lead to eye strain, pain, and childhood obesity. In short, there are inherent risks. 

But there are benefits as well. Yes, screen time can actually be a good thing. According to an October 2019 study out of Oxford, Cardiff, and Cambridge Universities, screen time in moderation can have a positive effect on kids. Watching television or using digital devices can actually increase one's social and emotional well-being.

"In light of our findings, calls for blanket technology bans and age restrictions on technology access do not constitute evidence-based or indeed ethical advice, particularly as screen usage in some cases has a net positive impact," Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said in a release. What's more, a July 2020 report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, suggested that parents should focus more on what their kids are consuming and less on how many hours they're logging.

And let’s face it, even now, as we return to school, work, and life off-line, most kids we know are still getting plenty of screen time. 

For Shaiyar, now 8, screen time has become a pandemic life line. He’s back in school physically now, but still loves having weekly online play dates on his iPad, chatting with his friends cross-country as they spent hours building Minecraft realms and creating animations. My daughter Kavya, 12, had virtual slumber parties with pals and plows through dozens of downloaded library books on her Kindle app. Then there’s some TV time, and the occasional video game binge.  

All those online hours add up, and I worry. But, experts say, most of us are overlooking the very real benefits that screens can bring, too.

"All screen use is not equal," Michael Robb, an author of the report and senior director of research at Common Sense Media, told CNN. This became particularly apparent in the height of the pandemic, when children were using computers to attend class and interact with their peers

“If you think about screen time the way you think about nutrition, there's like digital broccoli and digital ice cream,” says Julianna Miner, mom of three and author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age. “It really depends on what the child is using the screens for. For example, reading on an e-reader is definitely digital broccoli. And while you don't want your kid to overdo it on broccoli, because they're going to have an upset stomach, the amount of broccoli that you're going to allow them to eat every day is going to be far greater than than the junk food, right?”

She says certain activities, like watching instructional or educational videos on YouTube, playing role playing video games, or connecting with friends to watch a movie together online can all have big benefits for kids. “You just have to use your best judgment to set limits,” says Miner.

“The key is in moderation. But when used strategically, screen time can develop cognitive and social skills in most kids.”  

Below are five benefits of screen time that should put parents' minds at ease.

Improves Socialization

While it may seem counterintuitive, screen time can actually improve your child's social and emotional wellbeing. According to Internet Matters, "technology takes away physical barriers to social connections—which is important for children who find it hard to make friends or have special interests or special needs."

Parenting during the pandemic, many caregivers witnessed this firsthand, as I did with Shaiyar and his Minecraft playdates. Miner, too, says her teen reconnected with pals across the ocean online—and now is headed to London to visit in person. “Using social media to create and maintain friendships is great, not just for kids, but for all of us,” says Miner. “I liken it to the pen pals we’d have back in our day. It teaches 

It can be used for both conversations and play. My daughter video called her friends in early 2020, when lockdowns forced her (and many children) to stay home. They held tea parties and playdates over the web. And social media platforms can foster a sense of community and connectedness.

Apps like Common Sense Media's The Social Express II, Middle School Confidential 1: Be Confident in Who You Are, and Sit With Us have been specifically designed to help kids social development.

Enhances Critical Thinking

Not all apps and video games are created equal. That's a fact. But did you know some actually encourage learning and enhance critical thinking skills? "A lot of these games won't even feel like learning," says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. "But parents know time playing is time well spent with puzzles and games that challenge kids to experiment and find creative ways to solve problems."

Miner says that it’s important to vet the apps and games that your kids are using, but that many games—especially those that emphasize role-playing—center social dynamics and active communication.

“There are games that absolutely teach resilience, resource management, cooperation, strategic thinking, spatial thinking, reasoning. And all of those things are positive,” says Miner. “You try, you learn from your mistakes, you try again. That's how you become successful at playing pretty much any game. Right?”

And, she notes, “gaming can be a really meaningful social outlet. They’re connecting with friends and community and interacting in many of the same ways they would in person. But they're doing it like living room to living room, as opposed to in the backyard or at the park. And they still have all those needs to express, like feeling rambunctious and powerful and and getting their aggression out.”

Can Promote School Readiness

From educational games and apps to digital books—or e-books—screens can promote school readiness. Some television programs even encourage reading, spelling, math skills, and writing. And while the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend screen usage for children 18 months, high-quality apps and programs can be a great learning tool.

"[If you] want to introduce digital media, [you] should choose high-quality programming/apps and use them together with [your] children, because this is how toddlers learn best," an article on Healthy Children explains. "Co-view or co-play with your children, and find other activities for to do together that are healthy for the body and mind."

Helps With the Development of Fine Motor Skills

Working with and on computers and playing video games can help your child improve their hand-eye coordination, Internet Matters reports. "Interacting with computers improves both visual intelligence and hand-eye coordination," the website states. It also affects their coordination.

"Playing video games can improve motor skills," Nemours Children's Health notes in a statement.

Encourages Literacy and Communication

While it may seem odd to suggest that screens can (and do) improve literacy and communication skills, it's true. E-books improve our reading proficiency. They also give us access to a wide and varied library, larger than most could have in their home. And various apps and computer programs encourage communication, from emails and notes to messaging, Word, and Google Docs.

My sixth grader’s Lexile scores leaped to the college level because of her steady diet of e-book consumption, a habit I continue to encourage—it's digital broccoli, after all. And for the most part, this a habit I can indulge inexpensively, because she can borrow ebooks through her local library app.

The Bottom Line

That said, it's still important to balance time in front of the computer with other activities. Sitting in front of the TV or staring at your phone all the time is not good or healthy. It can have adverse effects. So setting limits is critical. “We’ve all experienced the kid that turns into a monster when you take away the Minecraft,” Miner says. 

Keep in mind that the screen time sweet spot will be different for each kid. “The amount of time your kid spends on screens should really be determined by a number of factors,” says Miner.  “The big one is, what is this kid's particular situation? Are they neurotypical or atypical? That would be my first question. The second is like, is it summertime? Is it school time? Is it winter break? The third would be how are they doing otherwise. If this is a kid who's active, who's pleasant to be around, who helps out around the house, who's doing fairly well in school, who seems socially well adjusted? If so, I’ll keep an eye on what they’re doing on their screens, sure. But I'm just not going to worry about it as much.”

So what exactly can parents do to ensure their kids are consuming quality content? Be involved, be aware of how your children are engaging with digital media, and try to help your kids find a balance of online and offline activities. Experts recommend following the "Three C's": Child, content, and context. That is, you know what's best for your child, but you can also try to help them prioritize quality content—which, by the way, Common Sense Media has loads of recommendations for.

Explore More

Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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