Reframing Children's Screen Time as a Tool for Good

Key Takeaways

  • The conscious use of screen time in ordinary, everyday moments can lead to countless learning and growth opportunities for children.
  • Parents have a superpower ability to enhance the value of any screen-based experience with their kids through co-engagement.
  • Parents should assess the value of screen time based on their families' needs at a particular time, and how they intend to use it.

Screen time. It's a term that has sadly become loaded with guilt and shame. Parents have enough pressure on themselves, and the last thing they need is added stress about their child's screen use.

For parents everywhere, screen time has now taken on a different meaning altogether. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that screens are a vital part of our lives. Screens have allowed adults to stay employed, children to continue learning, everyone to find a much needed entertainment break, and, of course, families to stay connected with loved ones.

Now, we can focus on how screen time can be used as a tool for good. How can technology and media enrich children's minds, encourage creativity, and foster bonding? There is one critical element that we don't focus on enough: parent involvement.1 Parents have a superpower ability to enhance the value of any screen-based experience with their kids-- this ability is what the child development community calls coviewing or coplaying.2,3

Think about when you're snuggled up and reading a book with your child; you likely naturally pause to talk about what's happening and ask questions.4 Try pausing videos and digital activities to do the same.5 Ask your child open-ended questions and draw comparisons between what they're seeing on screen and other things in their life. Engaging in shared, meaningful media use can lead to terrific bonding and quality time between parents and kids of all ages.

Now I get it--parents are busy and we can't always be there while our kid is watching or playing something. In reality, we often need something to occupy our child while we get a task done, or (and I say this from experience) as a way to enjoy a glass of wine and recharge! And that is all completely OK.

Even if you're in another room cooking dinner (or enjoying said glass of wine), you can still activate this parent superpower. You can call out interesting things that you hear or pop in to comment on, and ask questions about what you notice on-screen. If your child is playing a new app or game, try playing it with them the first couple of times so that they know what to do and can get the most out of it. If your child's activity calls for interactivity (e.g., following actions and answering questions), try modeling it with your child to increase the likelihood of them doing it on their own. Finally, talk to your child about what they watched or played. Ask them what they learned or thought was fun. Showing an interest in what they're watching and playing goes a long way.

The intentional use of screens in ordinary, everyday moments can lead to countless learning and growth opportunities with your child. For example, imagine that you're out at the park with your child, and you come across a bunch of tiny insect eggs laid in a unique pattern.

  • Your child asks you what they are. Instead of saying, "I don't know," you pull out your phone and do a quick internet search. You identify them as ladybug eggs and learn about them together. In doing so, you encourage your child's curiosity6,7 and love of learning.8
  • Next, you open your phone's camera and work with your child to take photos of the eggs. You use the photo to zoom in and more closely examine the eggs, in lieu of a magnifying glass. Around age two, your child starts to learn that what they see in photos is a representation of something in real life.9,10 By highlighting this comparison, you can help them achieve this cognitive skill (which in turn can help them learn more from screens).11
  • Finally, you might video chat with someone to show off your child's newfound ladybug knowledge. Children learn more through interactive video chat than passive television viewing.12,13 It's also a wonderful way for children to stay connected with and learn from friends and family.

I like to think of the screen as a toolbox, and all of the content (e.g., apps and shows) as the tools themselves. No tool is created equally and they vary in quality, but each tool's worth is ultimately dependent on what we need from it at a particular time, and how we use it to help augment or reinforce the lessons and behaviors we're teaching our kids every day.

Most importantly, never let anyone (including yourself!) make you feel bad about your family's use of screen time. As parents and caregivers, we are all doing the best we can, and we can rest easy knowing that technology and media are tools to both entertain and educate our kids, and to give us a well-deserved break when needed. And let's be honest, these days, it's needed a lot, and that's OK!


  1. Troseth, G. L., Strouse, G. A., & Russo Johnson, C. (2017). Early Digital Literacy: Learning to Watch, Watching to Learn. In Cognitive Development in Digital Contexts (pp. 29-51). Academic Press.
  2. Rasmussen, E. E., Shafer, A., Colwell, M. J., White, S. R., Punyanunt-Carter, N., Densley, R. L., & Wright, H. (2016). Relation between active mediation, exposure to Daniel Tiger's neighborhood and U.S. preschoolers' social and emotional development. Journal of Children and Media, 10(4), 443–461.
  3. Rasmussen, E. E., Strouse, G. A., Colwell, M. J., Russo Johnson, C., Holiday, S., Brady, K., ... & Norman, M. S. (2019). Promoting preschoolers' emotional competence through prosocial TV and mobile app use. Media Psychology, 22(1), 1-22.
  4. Walsh, B. A., & Blewitt, P. (2006). The effect of questioning style during storybook reading on novel vocabulary acquisition of preschoolers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(4), 273–278.
  5. Strouse, G. A., O'Doherty, K., & Troseth, G. L. (2013). Effective coviewing: Preschoolers' learning from video after a dialogic questioning intervention. Developmental Psychology, 49(12), 2368–2382.
  6. Shah, P. E., Weeks, H. M., Richards, B., & Kaciroti, N. (2018). Early childhood curiosity and kindergarten reading and math academic achievement. Pediatric Research, 84(3), 380-386.
  7. Stumm, S. V., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588.
  8. Church, E. B. (n.d.). Teaching children to love learning. Scholastic. Retrieved August 16, 2020
  9. DeLoache, J. S. (1987). Rapid change in the symbolic functioning of very young children. Science, 238(4833), 1556-1557.
  10. Troseth, G. L., Pierroutsakos, S. L., & DeLoache, J. S. (2004). From the innocent to the intelligent eye: The early development of pictorial competence. Advances in child development and behavior, 32, 1-35.
  11. Troseth, G. L., Casey, A. M., Lawver, K. A., Walker, J. M., & Cole, D. A. (2007). Naturalistic experience and the early use of symbolic artifacts. Journal of Cognition and Development, 8(3), 309-331.
  12. Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2014). Skype me! Socially contingent interactions help toddlers learn language. Child Development, 85(3), 956–970.
  13. Myers, L. J., LeWitt, R. B., Gallo, R. E., & Maselli, N. M. (2017). Baby FaceTime: Can toddlers learn from online video chat?. Developmental Science, 20(4), e12430.

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