Is Screen Time Good or Bad?

In 1972, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five was banned in Rochester Community Schools. The circuit judge described the book as “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian.”

Vonnegut’s best-selling novel was tossed in furnaces and seized from lockers.

Defenders of the book call it a classic anti-war book and point to its in-depth exploration of the conflict between fate and free will. The Christian themes create a polemic response. 

What makes the book interesting is that it has endured despite the controversy, maybe because of it. I read it in college and found it mostly strange and directionless, with only sparks of humanity and no sense of footing. But if others found that it clarified their sense of self, Christian beliefs, the senselessness of war. To each his own, or to quote the book:  “So it goes.” 

The point of introducing this literary touchpoint in our history is that we are seeing the same polemic reactions to screen time, especially as it applies to our children. Most often, Slaughterhouse Five was banned by people who had never read it, only heard of it. Likewise, we see the studies and read the articles about screen time, especially social media, and its negative effects with no acknowledgement of the healthy aspects.

The reality, like Vonnegut’s book, is that screens and social media are not going away. But unlike Billy Pilgrim who is left alone to navigate his traumatic experiences, his mental health issues, even his delusions and failed relationships, we don’t have have to leave our kids alone. We can be guides for our kids as we sort out the good from the bad in the digital world.

And that’s the key, the new idea, the aha moment: If you are a parent, be a parent. Talk to your kids. Talk to yourself. Determine what healthy screen time is and what’s not healthy. Ask yourself how a certain activity feels. Do you tend to compare yourself to others when on social media apps? Are you scrolling on your screen when you are with a group of friends? The phone can be a nice defense mechanism for when a teen is feeling uncomfortable socially. So they stand behind it. But it can also enhance their socialization. Teens are using their phones to connect, that means texting and chatting, and that’s healthy, most of the time. It’s OK to block or unfriend someone who is a bully or who makes you feel bad about yourself. And it is really good to spread positive comments about somebody. A good starting point is asking the question: “When does connecting make you feel good and when does it not?” If it’s only making you feel inferior, then stop. That goes for adults as well. Many adults are reliving their adolescent years through social media and are experiencing the same bouts with anxiety, depression, and general unhappiness. 

It’s also a good idea to just limit the time you waste on your phone. Engage in real life, talking face-to-face, walking, exploring, seeing new places and meeting new people in social gatherings, not virtual ones.

“Screen time matters less than we think,” says Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. She is a big advocate of using social media to connect in meaningful ways rather than drool for hours over the eternal scroll. 

Results revealed that increased time spent on social media was not associated with increased mental health issues across development when examined at the individual level. Hopefully these results can move the field of research beyond its past focus on screen time. – ScienceDirect

It’s not so much screen time, as what you are doing when you are there. When screen time is most negative is when the content is out of the users’ control. Maintaining healthy screen time is like maintaining a healthy diet or a safe speed limit. Eat the right stuff, and not too much of it. Drive within the speed limit. Sometimes, we as parents, have to set those limits—-filter content, block ads and trackers, even limit screen time altogether.

In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim seems to be at the whims of the fates. We can do better. Not by banning our kids from digital life altogether, but by taking control. Free will does rule our universe. We can decide how technology is used in our own households.