Kids Playing with Digital Tablet at Home

Are our screens inherently bad for us?

Every Sunday, I get a notification on my phone that tells me about my screen time for the past week. It analyzes the quantity of time I use my phone, the frequency that I pick up my phone, the notifications I get and where I’m spending my time on my phone. 

It doesn’t take into account the time I’m spending on other devices, though. It doesn’t factor in the hours I spend at work on a laptop or a tablet, or the time I spend watching TV with my husband once the kids are in bed. But, the data is thorough and I love data.

However, I notice that I feel a certain way, regardless of what that data says. Each time I’m notified about my screen time, I feel a bit of shame stir up in me for using screens throughout the week. It’s an instantaneous reaction, and it’s based on a limited scope.

I don’t take into account the fractional percentage of that time that was spent for leisure or entertainment, the percentage of work versus entertainment on that screen, or the quality of what I was consuming through that screen. Inherent in screen time in our culture is a feeling of shame about our screens at all.

As it relates to parenting, I am very familiar with this particular brand of shame. I recognize it from the time I was pregnant, when I opted for an epidural and didn’t opt for natural childbirth or a home birth. I know this shame from the point when I chose to go back to work, rather than staying home with my kids. I remember it from the point when I finished breastfeeding and switched to formula, unable to produce enough milk when I was pumping at work to feed my babies. I learned this feeling when I switched from cloth diapers to disposables.

There is a very real, very prominent message to parents in our culture that taking advantage of convenience is inherently immoral and, when we choose to take advantage of the things that will help us, we’re not raising our children well.

However, I don’t think the next generation will draw the same conclusions. As a child, I watched television without any limitations on my screen time. Our family was an early adopter of computers and the internet, and I have distinct memories of exploring the early “free-net” network of university libraries even before the world wide web was a thing. 

I had DOS-based computer games from a young age and taught many of my friends’ parents how to log onto the internet in the late nineties. My high school years were spent on AOL instant messenger, and I joined Facebook in 2005 when it was still called “The Facebook” and was only for college students.

As an adult, I’m able to focus for long periods of time. I’m very productive and I’ve been successfully employed throughout my adult life. I’m emotionally connected to the people in my life. I contribute to society. I diversify my activities. I have a rich spiritual life. I struggle with all the normal adult things, but generally, I turned out alright. Which is all to say: a liberal use of screens in my childhood didn’t ruin my life.

That doesn’t mean I’ve always had a healthy relationship with screens, but when things haven’t been fully healthy, it’s not because of the screens themselves, it’s because I’ve used them as an escape, as a vice. 

We can use anything as a vice, if we’re using it to avoid dealing with something else, to avoid pain or discomfort. We can use screens, or we can use exercise, or reading books, or shopping, or drugs, or alcohol or food… The vice itself isn’t the unhealthy thing, it’s the way it’s being used by the person. 

My children use screens liberally. My oldest learned to read by playing an app on a tablet. My kids like to play video and tablet-based games, they have YouTube channels they prefer over produced content on our streaming services, they like to make their own content and they love connecting with their friends and family via messaging apps. There is a high level of value being delivered to our family on screens, which isn’t inherently bad. 

However, not all of my kids currently have a healthy relationship with their screens at this moment. One of my children has been spending too much time on YouTube and, when asked to turn it off, she’s emotionally undone. So, we’re being intentional about creating better boundaries and guidelines for her, celebrating when she’s choosing to moderate and diversify her time and intake. We’re not prohibiting the use of screens, we’re working on loving her well and helping to bring the outlet into health.

Our culture loves to prohibit things that are dangerous because it’s simpler than wading through the mess of nuance. If you can’t find a healthy balance or you’re dealing with an addiction, a prohibition of a vice is a good thing. 

But prohibiting the use of technology when it is inherently woven into our culture breeds shame and invites an over-correction when that prohibition is lifted (everyone remembers that one kid from the sheltered household who went wild the moment they left their parents’ house). 

Let’s begin to do the harder work of finding the middle ground with technology, teaching ourselves and our children to have healthy relationships with themselves, others and their screens. 

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Colleen Cook works full-time as the Director of Operations at Vinyl Marketing in Ashland, where she resides with her husband Mike and three young daughters. She's an insatiable extrovert who enjoys finding reasons to gather people.