Blogger Cen Campbell

“Screen Time” is Bad

“Screen time” is bad for children. “Screen time” shouldn’t enter into professional discourse concerning services for children in libraries. “Screen time” is detrimental to our professional practice and distracts from the core values of librarianship.


The phrase “screen time” is not something we should be using anymore, because it’s a misnomer. What most people mean when they talk about the evils of “screen time” is passive media: television. Reading an ebook, videoconferencing with grandma and grandpa, or showing a child a picture that you’ve just taken of them is NOT the mind-numbing, passive time-waster that concerns many parents, educators, researchers and librarians. The fact that something is on a screen does not make it inherently bad, and the emphasis on time is also a red herring. If a child is thoroughly engaged in editing his or her own video, learning a programming language, videoconferencing with a pen pal, or reading/writing/designing an ebook, are you really going to say:

Ok kid! That’s it! You’ve had your *insert random time limit here*! Stop everything you’re doing and come *do some other thing that will require a re-focusing of attention and may not be nearly as engaging*!?

What matters most is the content, and then the context in which it is being used; that’s always been the case, and a change in format shouldn’t have the kind of power to shake the core principles of our profession (i.e. we fight censorship, we don’t engage in it). Blanket statements about the use of “screens” are simplistic and not very useful to anyone. Not all screens are created equal, and we have to stop knee-jerk reactions that lump all sorts of societal and pedagogical concerns into a single assumption; that if the use of a screen is permitted, it’s going to eclipse everything else we do in our libraries.

“Screen time” is often blamed for all sorts of things: ADHD, obesity, Autism, social disorders, parental neglect, and others. I’ve also heard concerns that violence, commercialism and free access to the internet are all dangerous for children, thus access to screens should be strictly limited. I’ve heard people say that there are pedophiles on Facebook, so we shouldn’t be using apps in storytime. (I’m serious! I’ve heard this more than once!) The accusations against “screen time” go on and on, so please; let’s just stop using the phrase “screen time.”

Unless of course, you’re talking about the book.

We do need a new set of vocabulary to refer to these new information packages. I met Warren Buckleitner at Dust or Magic this past weekend and he uses the term “narrative-driven interactive media” to refer to book-like things that exist digitally and have some kind of interactive element. That’s a librarian-worthy conversation that should continue. Digital immigrants like us need to re-examine our assumptions about what the word “literacy” means, and how our libraries need to support the development of early literacy skills for a new generation of people (digital natives) who require a vastly different skill set than the ones we needed.

Check out Chip Donohue’s recent ALSC webinar, Young Children & Media: Libraries in the Multi-Touch, Multi-Screen World and Warren Buckleitner’s Three Words for Digital-Age Parents: Access, Balance and Support for more thoughts on this topic.

And please; let’s have no more talk of “screen time.”


  1. Vanessa C

    “you’re looking at the fire too long, it’s bad for your eyes” — parents of early humans

    “get your nose out of that papyrus scroll and play with your cat” — parents of Ancient Egyptians

    “we’re still waiting on the long term effects of exposure to manuscripts” — parents of Medieval kids

    “that Gutenberg is going to be heck for the attention span of our kids” — 15th century parents

    “get your nose out of that book and go outside for heaven’s sake” — my Dad

    “I think screen time is bad for kids, they should just be reading books” — “modern” times

    1. Cen

      Oh my goodness. I think I’m going to have to use this in my next presentation. I wonder if we could infograph it. 😉

  2. Marge Loch-Wouters

    You capture the difference between passive using of media and interactivity in using digital media perfectly. It’s a point I appreciate you making – and I hope it will help those nervous about stepping into the future of transliteracy and many ways to access reading with children a little more open to change!

    1. Cen

      Thanks, Marge! I like your phrase “the future of transliteracy”!

  3. Tess J P

    I completely appreciate the way this post unpacks term “screen time” and I give Cen major kudos for both her tenacity and vision. I have complete confidence that our profession can and will get it right, and that the families we work with will benefit from their interactions and relationships with us. Everyone, keep reading the research, doing webinars, interrogate and critique everything and, well, for lack of a better phrase, get with the program! And this same inquisitive approach applies to discussions that extend beyond those about technology – there is a great deal of literacy research that has not made its way into our profession and to make the best decisions for our communities we need to adopt expanded views of literacy, which include, as Cen points out, the impacts and affordances of digital technology.

  4. Rachael Stein


    I’ll tell you one thing: I’m a lot more engaged with my seven-year-old when we’re playing Wizard 101 (a great MMORPG for kids) than when she’s making me play Littlest Pet Shop, during which time I’m usually staring resentfully off into space and making grudging bunny noises.

  5. Carisa Kluver

    Excellent points Cen! It feel like the linguistic box we have trapped ourselves in is set to only measure quantity not quality. And why hike I agree that the sheer number of hours spent on screens should be reduced for kids the idea that most solutions come from reducing time vs increasing quality is maddening to me!

  6. David

    Great piece, except that I wish you had addressed and debunked your line that “What most people mean when they talk about the evils of ‘screen time’ is passive media: television.”

    That may be what they mean, but it’s equally misguided. Content applies equally to television. Sometimes TV is the best way to tell a story – whether that’s a richly-told fairy tale or simply a fun animation. And personally, I’d rather a child watch a thoughtfully-developed, well-written TV show (say, “Wonder Pets”) than read a poorly-written book with no care given to its message or storytelling.

    Context matters, as well. Sometimes, we all (adults as well as kids) simply want to watch a well-crafted story told to us. And great TV isn’t passive – it can get kids up to dance or sing, but TV can also be intellectually active, sparking new thinking or inspiring a child to do something once the set is turned off.

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