Screens are no longer indulgences or luxuries in society; they are tools.

As we are (slowly) learning to help kids master these tools, we are also learning that hyper-restricting screen time may not always be beneficial for kids.

Foregoing screen content restrictions, however, is an entirely different beast.

While we want to help kids grow their muscles of self-regulation, we also want to guide them with rapt attention and discretion. And if anything calls for our attention and discretion, it’s the content our kids are consuming daily.

What is active vs. passive screen time?

There are two main categories of screen content: active screen time and passive screen time.

Active screen time is like kids’ putting money in their brain bank.

It’s when they game, play, and learn while being engaged in cognitive tasks that require problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and their own imaginative flair.

Think “creative mode” on video games, or interactive educational videos.

Passive screen time, however, is like brain candy: tasty at first, but over time, prone to rot.

Think mindless television or Youtube videos. It’s the sit-on-the-couch-for-six-hours-and-binge-Netflix mentality. It’s an instant-gratification tool that kids reach for when they’re bored – and until they can learn to self-regulate, it can be incredibly dangerous.

But what are the actual effects of active vs. passive screen time?

How does passive screen time affect kids?

You may be familiar with the havoc that too much mindless entertainment wreaks on our minds.

It makes us feel irritable, cybersick, and fatigued. It leaves us feeling unfulfilled, restless, and anxious. Long-term reliance on passive screen time can even lead to deep-rooted feelings of meaninglessness known as ennui.

Basically, passive screen time causes that sluggish state of monotony where we kinda-sorta become dead to the world.

Excessive passive screen time can, of course, lead to physical decline, because it encourages a sedentary lifestyle. Studies show that this heightens the risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and more.

Passive screen time can also negatively impact crucial components of kids’ development, such as emotional regulation, communication skills, and attention span.

Don’t worry – allowing your kid to watch Peppa Pig isn’t going to rot their brain. Passive screen time can actually be beneficial, in the sense that it helps kids learn about the world around them and discover what they’re curious about.

That’s the phenomenon of television: it feels like a portal to different realities that all mirror our own. It gives kids access to worlds they cannot access within the walls of their home. This can spark their imagination, creativity, and play circuit.

But at its core, that’s the power of storytelling at work – not the big screen in the living room.

When kids spend long hours immersed in mindless, passive entertainment, the results are only downhill from there. It’s similar to an adult watching Netflix. Every now and then, watching Netflix is a real treat. It’s a fun social activity that sparks conversation and stretches your imagination. But when the remote becomes the only thing we reach for in our spare time, it begins to control us.

Overall, passive screen time is spoon-fed stimulation that encourages intellectual laziness and dissociation because it requires zero cognitive engagement.

Active screen time, on the other hand, can accomplish the opposite.

How does active screen time affect kids?

At its core, active screen time requires engagement, whether physical or cognitive.

Active screen time is when kids are deliberately putting in effort to achieve a task or goal.

Video games, for instance, are scientifically proven to enhance overall cognitive performance. They can improve attention, reaction time, creativity, and logic. They boast emotional, social, and motivational benefits. They’ve even been prescribed as therapy or rehabilitation.

Bader Chaarani, PhD, the lead author of a positive video-game study in children, said:

Any physical activity is preferable over any screen time, but video gaming may be better than TV watching, for example. TV watching is considered a passive activity, while video gaming is more active and it may have some cognitive benefits for children.

On the topic of video games, clinical psychologist and video game researcher, Anthony Bean, PhD, also said:

You can engage in different worlds, you can problem solve, and you can try different things. It’s a great tool to be used if used appropriately.

To be used inappropriately, of course, is for kids to play violent games that expose them to age-inappropriate themes and may trigger their own sense of aggression.

There is a long-standing fear that all video games enhance violence in kids – however, symptoms of violence and aggression have been linked to violent video games (such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto), not video games in general.

Nonviolent video games, such as Minecraft or Mario Kart, rely more on creative, collaborative avenues (that have nothing to do with guns and killing).

But video games aren’t the only source of active screen time.

PBS Kids offer interactive screen time options where kids can learn and engage in educational activities that also feel like play. They’re building, creating, solving problems, and grappling with difficult questions.

Games like Wii Sports require less cognitive performance but more physical, social, and emotional exertion. Any active screen time that engages kids in this way can be positive.

As we know, reactions to screen time are highly individualized – and so is screen content. Even nonviolent active screen time can trigger symptoms of mood swings and irritability in certain kids once they’ve crossed their screen threshold.

This is an opportunity for parents to lean in and pay attention to how certain content is affecting their kids’ behavior. And as we encourage kids to pursue active screen time, we must hold ourselves to the same standard.

Active vs. passive parenting styles

Jacob Holzman, Ph.D. is an adolescent psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado who said:

​​Many children want to do what the people they love most in their lives are also doing. Parents might find that reducing their own screen time (e.g., smartphone use, TV show watching) can lead to their child also spending less time on screens.

The idea of family screen planning or a family media plan is becoming a popular go-to to regulate house rules of screen time for parents and kids alike.

Jennifer Cross, M.D., a pediatrician specializing in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, said:

The thing that helps the most honestly—the principle behind the family media plan—is we are doing this as a family. So Mom and Dad don’t sit there on their phones and say ‘you can’t have the phone.’ The parents have to model the behavior for the kid.

A “do as I say, not as I do” approach is not the healthy (nor effective) option when it comes to screen time.

In terms of content, the most important thing is that parents are experiencing screen content with their kids. That way, they can understand the kind of content they are consuming and precisely how it is affecting them.

Imagine Minecraft is affecting your kid negatively despite its lack of violence. This is an opportunity to facilitate conversation with your kid to help them grow their muscles of self-regulation.

Ask your kid: What do you notice in your body and your behavior when you’ve played this game for an hour? Why do you think that is? Do you think you can play this game without acting this way?

Rather than a power struggle, cooperatively regulating screen content can be a practice of mindfulness, where you help your kid comprehend the root of the problem and then learn how to address it themselves. But if you want your kid to actively engage with the world around them, you must do the same.

Remember: screens are tools that are now fully integrated into our society. Our job is to help kids control and master these tools.

Active screen time resources

There’s an ever-evolving slate of active screen time activities you and your kid can choose from. Here are some recommendations to help get you started.

Online card games and board games

All your favorite childhood games are now digital.

These come in handy because they travel easy, and your kid can play them from anywhere. Plus, they’re tried and true forms of content. You don’t have to sit around and worry about the effects of card games or board games on your kid’s brain.

With digital card games and board games, kids can:

Online literacy games

Words and reading don’t have to be boring. In fact, online apps and platforms have gotten especially innovative with word games to help make the process fun and engaging for kids.

With digital word games, kids can:

Online music games

Learning to play an instrument can be difficult, but incredibly rewarding for kids’ emotional, social, and cognitive development. Digital music enhances the skills that kids need to play music in “the real world.” .

The initial days of Guitar Hero were iconic for a reason: online music makes music infinitely more accessible.

With digital music, kids can:

Online STEM Games

Online STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) has made complex topics easily accessible for kids of all ages.

With digital STEM games, kids can:

The bottom line

It can feel intimidating trying to discern what content is healthy aligned with a kid’s development and overall wellbeing. But, as the parent of your child, you know more than you think you do.

For instance, how do you decide that chess is good for your kid? How do you determine that learning music is a net positive as daily content consumption? You can use the same logical processes to evaluate other forms of content and determine what your kid should be consuming.

Trust that you know your kid better than anyone. And trust that you’re going to help them make the best decisions for themselves – in the moment, and in the future.

Grace Smith

Grace Smith

Grace is a creative wordsmith with a zest for innovative storytelling. After getting her BA in English-Writing, she dove into the world of alternative education and hasn’t shut up about it since. On top of finding new and better ways to learn, Grace is a freelance content writer and strategist passionate about classic literature, killer cortados, and the perfect Spotify playlist.

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