Cheesecake and Screen Time

I want you to imagine something.  

Imagine that the Cheesecake Factory decided to have a very special promotion.  For one weekend only, diners are invited to enjoy unlimited cheesecake.  Any variety.   All for just 3.99.  Imagine the insanity that would ensue.  There wouldn’t be crowds, there would be mobs.  Let’s say the restaurant miraculously figured out ways to manage the logistics of this, and everyone who wanted to participate could literally have as many slices as they wanted.  Try to contemplate, for a moment, the enormous amount of cheesecake that would be consumed over the course of the weekend. 

Now imagine this.  Unbeknownst to its patrons, the Cheesecake Factory actively monitors the number of calories consumed by each guest during this weekend.  They compile the data, and turn it over to the government. The government decides, based on this data, that adults in America are completely incapable of regulating our food consumption, and that left unchecked we are all going to eat ourselves to death in a matter of weeks.  So the government graciously comes to our aid, implementing and enforcing strict laws concerning how much food each of us is allowed to consume.  It’s for our own good.  

It would be ridiculous, right?  Downright absurd, intrusive and completely unfair.  

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the controversial issue of screen time for kids.  I’ve read alarmist articles and research reports. I’ve read blog posts and personal accounts.  I read one statement in a few different places that caught my attention. According to several articles and blogs, kids are totally unable to regulate their own screen time.  On each occasion, this was stated without citation, as though it was a well-known fact.  But it directly contradicted my personal experience. I’ve seen kids successfully regulate their own screen time.  So I went looking for the research. 

I didn’t find research.  I didn’t find studies. What I found referenced, over and over again, was the ‘48 hour screen time experiment’.  

So, the family that usually has fairly standard screen time restrictions decides to do a ‘study’. They lift the restrictions for one weekend – a set block of 48 hours – allowing the kids to play as much and as long as they want, with no requirements to break for food or sleep.  The kids are well aware that it’s a limited time offer.  They are not aware, however, that their consumption is being tracked, and will be used against them later.  Yes, the kids take advantage of the situation and gorge themselves on as much screen time as they are physically able.  And these ‘results’ are used, again and again, as evidence proving that kids can’t regulate their screen time. This is not research.  From a scientific or statistical standpoint, the whole thing is absurd. The results of this ‘study’ are about as useful as data showing that, if offered unlimited cheesecake, we tend to eat a lot of it. And using this data to prove the need for screen time restrictions is as ethically questionable as it would be if the government decided to step in and control our food consumption because of how much we consumed during a Cheesecake Factory binge session. The kids didn’t respond they way they did because they are kids. They responded that way because they are human. 

Now, I’ll readily believe that kids are not as good at regulating their screen time as most adults have learned to be.  And there may well be real research out there that shows that unequivocally. But I do believe that they are capable of learning, and that that learning will happen better and faster if their parents don’t externally impose strict guidelines on their kids’ screentime use.  When we tightly regulate screen time, we teach children that it is a limited resource.  We treat screen time as though it’s the most valuable thing out there. More valuable than all other types of play.  More valuable than reading. More valuable than creating things or exploring outside.  Screen time becomes their ultimate goal. And yes, in those circumstances kids will obsess over screen time to the exclusion of all else.  They will consume as much of it as they can, whenever they get the opportunity. They don’t do that because they are unable to regulate their consumption. They do that because that’s how our human brains handle highly valued, limited resources And that’s how, too often, we teach kids to view screen time. 

In my reading about screen time and regulation I did come across this interesting (and actually legitimate) study:

In short, kids who had unlimited screen time as children did better in college.  It made perfect sense to me.  If kids are used to having strict screen time limits, what happens when they go to college and those artificial boundaries disappear?  Screen time totally takes over. Forbidden fruit syndrome is a real thing. If we treat something as a limited resource, it becomes so much more valuable to us than it otherwise would. 

The saddest part, to me, about the ‘48 hour screen time experiment’ was how it ended.  They talked to the kids about their experience of gorging themselves on screen time. The kids had some really insightful thoughts on the matter. They acknowledged that they felt driven to play as much as they could, but that   “It wasn’t even that fun.” and “actually playing them got kind of boring.” They noticed how much more fun they had when they put the screens away at the end of their 48 hour gorge session and did something else. What an opportunity to help them learn to regulate screen time on their own!  The pieces were already in place. After that experience, I’d bet the next 48 hours of unlimited screen time would play out differently.  Try the same experiment 5 times or 10 times, I bet you’d start to see kids doing the thing that so many believe they can’t, regulating their screen time consumption.  Kids are very good learners.  But no, this learning opportunity was passed by, and the kids were told that their experience was proof of their incompetence.  We need to be careful about teaching kids that they are incapable and incompetent. They tend to live up to our expectations, or down to them, as the case may be.