On Screen Time, Setting Limits and Uncertainty: An open letter to my third-grader

Dear Wally,

I’m writing to let you know I’ve registered your recent complaints about not getting enough screen time.

It’s nothing new for you to voice your objection to various rules around here, and for the most part I don’t flinch or falter when you do. The rules may seem arbitrary, but we have a great deal of evidence-based science to back most of them up. I don’t feel anxious, for example, when you complain about going to bed too early. I know you need sleep. Same goes for whining about being the only one who doesn’t get “gummies” in your lunch. (That’s an easy one. Those gummies may be made with real fruit juice flavor but they are not in fact fruit and have very little to do with fruit. That said, you get plenty of junk at other times during the day, probably way too much.)

Where I’ve been caught in a kind of sinkhole of uncertainty lately has to do with screen time.

It’s just really hard to know where to put limits or how much longer I can even reasonably impose them given that two and a half years from now you’ll be in middle school, traveling alone around the city, and really will “need” a phone. Already teachers are recommending homework apps. You’ve started your own activist website. Screens are—as everyone notes—increasingly inescapable. When I say “No screens at all” for such and such amount of time on the weekend, you frequently point out the hypocrisy of me checking my email and texts. “Oh that’s for work,” I explain. “Or that’s to see who is out at the playground.” Still, it makes the boundaries rather murky. Most evenings it's not reasonable to sit around telling ghost stories and playing acoustic guitar by candlelight.

I think your impression that you’re the only one of your friends not to have your own iPad may not be entirely accurate. But what’s more important than determining the exact habits of any one friend is for me to acknowledge that you’re right, it is starting to become clear like your digital media usage is more restricted than that of almost anyone we know.

One friend of yours plays Plants and Zombies every morning before school. Another doesn’t eat dinner with the family many nights because he is allowed to take snacks in his room and play on the iPad. I’ve seen kids watching videos on their parents’ phones in the playground. Certain friends of yours prefer playing Wi to anything else. Others holed up in their rooms. I watched you beg a friend to play a board game, to no avail. I’ve seen another friend of yours capriciously flip on the TV while you’re visiting. I know many households where each member has a laptop, preferring separate youtube videos to family movies. 

Last week I called an indoor playroom and asked about the ages there. The woman who answered the phone said the three-year-old, that's Petra, would love it. They had Wi-Fi for older kids (seven and up). I laughed and said as long as you were allowed in at newly 9 you'd find plenty to do. And you did. You played and laughed in the ball pit and went down the slides and jumped in the bouncy house and raced around and did whatever kids are supposed to do. Play. In the real world. Moving around. Interacting with others or imagining scenes in your own head. You didn't give Wi-Fi a second thought. Why would you? You had a whole giant indoor playroom. 

Yet even with all kinds of toys to play with, or giant yards to roam around, I routinely see friends of mine hand phones to kids who seem to be at loose ends. That worries me, because it seems like a self-defeating habit, a self-reinforcing one. The kid knows he or she will get the phone, which exerts a strong pull and is highly addictive, so he or she can't settle down into enjoying the toys or the yard. It's hard for adults to summon the will on our own to do something more "worthwhile" (paint, read, call a friend, take a walk) rather than plug in. Why would we expect a kid to manage that without external boundaries?
Maybe it's just luck, but maybe it's also because you don't need to summon the willpower to unplug that you're adept at being at loose ends. You love to read. You write (or at least start) a story a day. You make up badges for your neighborhood scouts. You sketch fruit characters. You draw imaginary maps. You like board games and Kung Fu and playing piano and writing songs. All these are really great things and I think they’ll serve you better and develop your further than additional screen time would but that may not be true. We don’t have the outcome data yet, because smartphones have only been in widespread use for the past seven years or so.  

On the other hand, much has been published about the benefits of being bored. About the necessity of learning how to make your own fun. About the creativity that comes from having “nothing to do.” I don’t need to convince you of that, but I do feel I need to convince of you of something. Or maybe I need to convince myself.

I certainly don’t want you to be like the friend of my sister’s growing up plunked herself in front of MTV for hours at a time at our house because she didn’t have a TV. Or a friend of mine who raced to paw through our bags of Halloween candy (always stockpiled well into spring) because she wasn’t allowed to eat candy. In other words, I’d hate to make screen time so desirable that you fixate on it.

It’s just really…tricky. Even the American Academy of Pediatricians recently changed their previously strict guidelines to: It depends. They still recommend zero time for under 18-month toddlers. And they still set limits on digital media for entertainment. But as far as digital media in general, when it doesn’t interfere with other components of a healthy lifestyle (like getting enough sleep), they leave it up to the parents.

That’s me. And Dad.

And I won't speak for Dad (though I can tell you he sleeps much better and seems happier overall now that he leaves his phone in the kitchen charging at night) but I can tell you that there are a few years in your life when you can exist fully in the world, the one right in front of you. Anything you're missing now, a game you wish you could play, a show you wish you could watch, electronic bragging rights to which you don't have access, you can catch up on any of those at some future time. It is not now or never. It is not something that can't be undone. There will be many years to devote to gorging yourself on digital media, if that's what you choose to do. 

But there is something that can't be undone. 

That is now or never.

That is the chance to be exactly where you are. Without the nagging urgency to race home and find out how many virtual watermelons someone you've never met has sliced while you've been away.

The chance to play and create and imagine without the itch to grab for a screen, without the compulsive fear or curiosity about what someone else will think of what you just played or created or imagined. The chance to live without the white noise of those insistent, disembodied voices. 

Your days living, as Thoreau might call them, "free and uncommitted," those are numbered. Afternoons that stretch out in every direction, where you have no idea what time it is, those are too.

The expansiveness of open-ended time, alone, with only the sound of your own thoughts, the terror of that and the beauty of and the wonder, that is nearly impossible to regain, once you've given it up. Hours where the grassy patch across the street can become a desert in Botswana, or the surface of the moon.

At some point when you're a young adult you're going to see a postcard or with a quote asking what you'll do "with your one wild and precious life." It's a line taken from a poem called "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver. 

No one bothers much with the rest of the poem, but it is beautiful. In it the speaker says she doesn't know "how to pay attention/how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields." I want you to know--now at least, while you're only just newly 9-years-old--how to pay attention, how to kneel down in the grass, how to stroll through the fields. 

That other realm, the one where you kneel in the grass, lose yourself in your capacity for wonder, is immeasurably splendid. It is an entire kingdom, a queendom, the "cathedral space" of childhood. It is sacred; its treasures can't be overstated. 

That is what I am trying to protect. The limits on games and TV, the "unfair" restrictions, the outdated prescriptions, those are barricades against the dragon of digital media that would steal hours, weeks and years of all our wild and precious lives, my attempts, pathetic perhaps—increasingly isolated and desperate—to keep that fire-breathing, ravenous dragon at bay.



  1. This is so similar to my own inner monologue about screen time. (Much more eloquent, obviously!) So true about the expanse of open-ended time. I long for those days now with all the demands of work and childcare.

  2. I'm sure it's not more eloquent but I do so appreciate you taking the time with all your demands to read and comment here Kelly. Thank you.

  3. I love this letter, Rachel. It's really eye-opening for me. I'm so immersed in the toddler world right now, this seems like the distant future--though I know it's not so far off. It seems futuristic too. Even the Jetsons didn't dream of this.

    I have a lot of thoughts here. First, guilt that I eventually gave my phone to our toddlers so that we could chat late into the evening--something outside the norm for us.

    Screens are so addictive and our passive consumption takes us out of our bodies and out of the present. It is the opposite of creativity. This exquisite paragraph captures what our screens steal from us. "The expansiveness of open-ended time, alone, with only the sound of your own thoughts, the terror of that and the beauty of and the wonder, that is nearly impossible to regain, once you've given it up. Hours where the grassy patch across the street can become a desert in Botswana, or the surface of the moon." As a life-long day dreamer, it seems tragic not to have time to drift and imagine.

    Screens also rob us of engagement with our surroundings, as you detail so well here. Isabella is a keen observer, often pointing out things that would otherwise escape my notice. She says hello and seeks conversation with everyone we meet throughout the day. This sort of engagement, which impacts brain development, speech, social skills, and emotional intelligence, simply does not happen when a kid is glued to a screen.

    At Wally’s age and stage, there’s an entirely different landscape to navigate…autonomy, comparisons to friends, negotiation. I’m pretty shocked about the friend who trades family dinner for snacks and screen time in his room. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

    My challenge right now is limiting my own screen time. Very interesting that Alex is happier now that he charges his phone in the kitchen at night. I would love to make our last two hours of the evening screen-free. Now to get Chris on board with that. Thank you for this food for thought!

  4. Oh no, Sarah! You are the last person who should feel guilty. I don't think I've ever seen anyone raise a toddler in a more mindful and engaged. I would absolutely give a free-pass to phone-handing off for late-night chatting (and I suppose my opinion is a bit biased given that I benefited from it). I think it is perfectly okay for the kids--after playing all day, and getting a chance to play at the beach no less--to sit and watch a show for a bit in the evening. I am not an advocate for no screens at all, just trying to explain why I set limits that, as it turns out, are far stricter than average now, even among our limit-setting peer group. Also, full disclosure, I've been in screen-free households sometimes where it is so exhausting, so depleting, trying to talk and visit with friends that I was in near tears at certain points wishing we could put on the tV for a bit and have a real conversation!!!

    I truly believe one has to look at the whole picture before making judgements about screen time, and perhaps some of my comments/critiques were tossed off too casually. There are parents who brag about "no screen" time but meanwhile have full-time nannies. So it's the nanny who assumes the additional responsibility of never even getting that half hour to put together a lunch in a somewhat sane state of mind, without constant, unrelenting interruptions and demands. Others who brag about "no TV" but who see every movie as soon as it comes out.

    Yes - screens are the opposite of creativity, at least much of the passive activities we engage in there are. "Drift and imagine"--yes! I would feel so terrible to rob my kids of the time to "drift and imagine" because I didn't have the willpower to stop them from screen-grabbing.

    Thanks for your comments Sarah, thoughtful as always. An ongoing conversation...

  5. I also love this letter! For the record Naomi does NOT have her own IPad and time on that is limited. TV is another story. At least I limit to PBS kids before school. Oh man it's so hard with the screens. N tends to not like playing by herself so either I am her playmate or we have to arrange a playdate or she's begs and begs for the TV (or youtube which I'm less inclined to give) and I give in. I love that Wally creates Maps and draws fruit! He's a cool kid and you are a cool mom. Glad to know you both - share any screen diversion wisdom as you will! xo L

  6. Thank you LJR! It's so tough! I think definitely hard with the one kid too. I find TV (esp PBS) far preferable to youtube. Easier to control, for one, but also just the clear beginning and ending. It makes it easier, mentally, less of a weird vortex. You're a cool mom/kid pair too! Also, as I wrote in the comment above to Sarah, I definitely think it's something that you have to look at almost on a case by case basis. Far better that a kid watches a bit "too much" if that allows the caretaker to pause/regroup/regain energy so that say, dinner and the rest of the evening go more smoothly. What's the point of trying to do everything perfectly and then you end up a heaping stress ball and snap at the kid over nothing because you didn't let yourself have that break. I think it's almost equally important to think about our own habits. I'm so annoyed at my default break or stress relief being to turn to some screen. One of the reasons is that you can do a quick check, whereas trying to do yoga or write or even read a book is asking for the impossible with young kids around...trying to figure out ways to have more constructive breaks for adults, too.

  7. I have this debate with S and with myself so often it feels like a heavy weight around my neck. We caved and a Wii came into our house this past Christmas (my original rule was no video games til he turned ten) and I hate to admit that one of the reasons I caved was because another mom told me that he "really is the only kid in third grade without video games." I'm sure it was hyperbolic. I feel like a sucker admitting that peer pressure is still thing for me, the adult. He had actually never really complained about not having one, which I somehow rationalized as one more reason it was ok to change my rule. I wasn't caving, I was rewarding his non-whining.

    And I lean on it. There's no sibling here for him to play with, the street we live on is busy, and suburbia is weird. The Wii is used as time-filler so I can work, so I can talk to a visiting friend, make dinner, grade papers, fold laundry. Especially in the winter. And, because I lean on it, it does and has become his go-to thing to do with friends. His friends mostly have no interest in Legos or board games. And unless I nudge him away from the tv and into the playroom, he mostly has no interest in Legos or board games anymore, either.

    And I hate it. Sometimes. And I love it, other times. Some games are fun (all three of us play MarioKart on Saturday mornings and it's a non-stop laugh fest.) I'm hoping now that the weather is nice he'll always choose bikes over Zelda, or the beach over Pokémon, and maybe my guilt will go away. Sigh. Motherhood is hard.

  8. Amie -- this is such a lovely little piece of its own. Thank you for taking the time to tell me about your experience. I admire you admitting to peer pressure -- it's still a thing for me too. And I can understand that rationalization for sure - rewarding his non-whining. I'm curious to hear more about how suburbia is weird (although I grew up in it, so I guess I Should know). I can totally see how it's a handy time-filler for all those things you need to do, and sometimes I think if it means I am less stressed and able to get those things done (laundry/dinner/work) then I can focus more on my kids rather than a whole evening of chaos, mess, hovering, and the tension that accompanies it. Do you think after initial resistance he does get into the Legos and board games still? (Just needs to warm up a bit?) Yes - you've got the beach! Can't beat that with a Wii remote. It is! It really is hard...guilt no matter what choices we make. Thanks for jumping in the conversation. Still not resolved here either. (Just tonight, Wally wining about how everyone has some Pokemon Sun & Moon game...everybody in the world but him!)


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