By: Regis Coustillac, Account Manager

Think of all the things you rely on your smartphone or tablet to accomplish. These devices have become our primary means of communication, through texts, emails and phone calls. Phones and tablets are the modern newsstand, offering access to countless news outlets and magazines. They’ve become our banks and our stores. We connect with our friends and families through social media apps like Facebook or Twitter. We use screens to read, write and listen. We use screens to fill the furthest corners of our imagination.

Still, in the last decade, the words “screen time“ have raised red flags for nearly every parent in the country. According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of parents worry their teen spends too much time in front of screens.

Different kinds of screen time?

Defining screen time is like defining exercise — there are too many variables to cram it into one category, especially when we’re discussing its potential health effects on children. Sure, taking the stairs every day counts as exercise, but it isn’t like taking a spin class, and neither of those are like running a marathon. Each of those activities needs to be considered individually to properly weigh the impact.

In the same way, one could easily lump together pastimes like reading an ebook, watching a movie, playing a coding game or scrolling through Twitter as examples of screen time. But are they really all the same? Surely the nature of the activities must be considered. Lately, some academics have begun distinguishing between active and passive screen time.

A recent article in The Atlantic sheds some light on the subtleties of active vs. passive screen time, pointing out that children are especially susceptible to the circumstances of their environment. For instance, quality time with an adult may not be better than time spent in front of a screen if the time is not spent constructively or the experience is negative. So then, screen time by itself is not an accurate predictor of overall health for children — meaning we need to broaden our perception of the subject.

What’s in a name?

Some experts have recommended doing away with the phrase “screen time” altogether. An article published by researchers in the Early Childhood Education Journal seeks to redefine screen time, claiming that the term is too vague and replacing it with the phrase “media, technology and screen time.” (MeTS)

It may seem silly to some, but the way we use language is a direct reflection of our values. By decrying screen time in general terms, we may be sending a message to our children that all screen time is bad, even when that time is spent actively and productively. And because the phrase “screen time” has gained such a negative connotation, it may be time to reevaluate how we’re (or if we even should be) using it around kids.


Ultimately, our struggle with screen time/MeTS is still a fairly new concern. It may take years for us to develop a proper formula when it comes to exposure.

This uncertainty can feel discouraging to some, but there’s a lot that you can do to protect your students and children in the meantime. The Academy of American Pediatrics is a great resource to start with. They recommend setting some basic guidelines for device use in children and adolescents:

  1. Ensure they get enough sleep and physical exercise
  2. Develop a technology use plan
  3. Maintain open communication between families and school districts/administrators

For more on the right kind of screen time and how digitization can benefit young learners, check out our white paper Engaging student readers through digital tools.

About the Author:

Regis is an OverDrive Education Account Manager. He helps schools in OH, PA, and WV incorporate digital reading into their curriculum and school culture. His background is in creative writing and his passion is poetry. He worked as a teaching artist for three years, leading workshops for students, community members, and immigrants in Northeast Ohio.