Random Thoughts

Active vs Inactive Screen Time

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A New York Times article was released this week. How did I find it? Our 23 year old Kindergarten teacher forwarded it to me from her iPhone. She only has the “essential apps” on her new iPhone….Facebook and the NYTimes. 🙂

I’ve read the article a couple of times now and have rewritten this blog post no less than 3 as I try to make sense of what this means for kids today.

The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“…except for the time in school” might be a little harsh as I’d bet most kids are on computers some how some way in most schools. Maybe not all the time, but come on, we have a lot of technology packed into schools these days. I’m sure they’re spending at least some of their time on the computers there as well.

The new study shows that kids between 8 – 18 are now spending close to 11 hours in front of screens. I’ll admit that’s a lot, but where do these habits start?

On a flight from Seattle to Tokyo. We're suppose to be sleeping
On a flight from Seattle to Tokyo. We're suppose to be sleeping.

We know that good, balanced habits, start when you’re young. Hence the reason that still to this day when I get home from school I have to change my clothes from my “school clothes” to my “not-school clothes”. That habit was drilled into me all growing up. You come home and before you go outside or go work on the farm you had to change your clothes. To this day, much to the laughter of my wife, I still have to. I’m not comfortable until I’ve changed out of my school clothes.

So I ask, who’s setting the habits for an 8 year old to spend 11 hours a day in front of a screen? I would expect screen time to increase just due in part to the fact there are more screens in our lives. But there’s a time as well for Legos and tag with neighborhood friends.

Where are the parents in these conversations? When did the TV…now at 4 1/2 hours a day….become the babysitter? Who’s fault is that? Parents? Employers? Or Kids themselves?

Contrary to popular wisdom, the heaviest media users reported spending a similar amount of time exercising as the light media users. Nonetheless, other studies have established a link between screen time and obesity.

Now that’s interesting! I think as screens continue to take over our lives we’ll see more of these habits. The Wii can be both a screen and a workout. My iPhone is my trainer, record keeper, and motivator. Does my workout time count as screen time as well? If so there’s very little time I’m not interacting with a screen. My books are on a screen, my guitar lyrics and chords, my workout routine, and my work. Is that a bad thing?

Maybe we need to start asking the question in these surveys that differentiates between “Active Screen Time” and “Non-Active Screen Time

Those that have a high “Non-Active Screen Time” I’m sure are those in a study that show a link to obesity. But what about those with a high “Active Screen Time”? Can I be healthy being in front of a screen 11 hours a day? Can I be healthy going to the gym where I run on a treadmill for an hour while watching TV?

One of the most interesting parts of this whole article is the look at the increased use of cell phones, mp3s, and laptop computers over the past 5 years.

Kaiser Family Foundation Study as reported in the nytimes on Jan. 20, 2010
Kaiser Family Foundation Study as reported in the nytimes on Jan. 20, 2010

Seeing that you can now get TV content on both your cell phone and your mp3 player might help explain the jump in TV content viewing. In fact everything on that list could be explained by the mainstream use of cell phones and mp3 players within this age group. No longer do you have to be at home inactive to watch a TV show. You can now be anywhere, doing anything, at anytime. A significant change sense the last survey in 2004.

If we’re going to continue to do studies that look at screen time, I think we need to start asking the questions is it active or inactive use of the screen/device?

The more I think about this the more I’m wondering about those numbers and this survey. But it’s time for me to get off the screen for a while and go workout…in a gym…with a TV on the wall….and an iPhone strapped to my arm.

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. Well, as you may know… I resisted those dang cell phones for years… (Mostly because I didn’t have anyone to call… or call me…) But now that those handy iPhones are out… I’m using it all the time (unless I’m driving of course!)

    It’s just too convenient to have such a wealth of information available to you. I’m looking forward to the permanent data interface to my brain!

    Unfortunately, my body tells me that whether I’m active or passive… I’m not getting any stronger or building endurance sitting at a computer!

    I wonder how the constant stimulation is affecting how our brains process information over time. Am I a more efficient or less efficient thinker because of my easy access to information?

    Take it easy, great post.

    -I like the photo of the airplane!

  2. You make a great argument about the validity of these statistics. I think you really hit home with the example of the Wii which is clearly a form of exercise that is utilizing a screen. We need to take advantage of the opportunity of technology as a promotion for an active, learning lifestyle. More games, programs and applications need to be focused on healthy lifestyles and, once differentiated in surveys, we’ll see a large difference in the numbers provided above.

  3. Anna Watkins Reply

    Honestly, I’d much rather see the day reversed, with much of the school day spent consuming, evaluating and creating media, and very little media consumption after school.

    I also would like to see some more detailed info on how the media time is spent — how much is spent watching a soap or the news while on a treadmill, how much spent learning or creating content (writing a blog, communicating via Facebook, creating music in GarageBand), and how much is spent sitting solo in front of a screen being entertained. It’s the huge amount of time spent on entertainment media that concerns me — the one-way input flow of high stimulation with relatively little output. It’s much harder for most kids to entertain themselves without a screen, and I can’t accept that this is ok.

  4. I know this is not strictly germane, but I have to offer my support for your clothes-changing routine. I too divest myself of my work garb when I get home. I would feel that I were somehow tainting my home life if I didn’t.

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