The purpose of this blog post is to dispute the idea that limiting children’s screen time is the privilege of the wealthy. This is in response to a Christianity Today article, “Blessed Are the Rich, for They Can Afford to Limit Their Kids’ Screen Time” by Bonnie Kristian, who I am sure is a great person. Nevertheless, the point of her article is to suggest that limiting children’s screen time is something that is practical only for more socioeconomically privileged families. Kristian and her husband limit their children’s screen time, but she claims is partially a function of privilege:

[A]voiding screen time has been comparatively easy for me because our family is fortunate in many ways. My husband and I both work from home, have semi-flexible schedules, and can afford full-time childcare. I can hold out against resorting to a screen to afford me a moment of blessed peace because I have many such moments, like this one—where I’m able to write alone, in my office, in a quiet house.

I confess I read the article as coming from a stream of thought where an ever-increasing number of elements of the good life (not the economic good life, but the theological/philosophical good life) are considered to be privileges of the wealthy. For instance, it is now not uncommon to read articles that claim that marriage itself is somehow a perquisite of being upper middle class. (The Guardian asks: “Can you afford to get married? In the US, it’s increasingly the privilege of the rich”.) (Conspicuously absent from that article—and indeed, any similar article I can think of—is any consideration that the causation runs the other way; but that is a gripe for another time.)

Let us please acknowledge that limiting screen time, of all things, need not be made a class issue; it need not be a money issue.

First let me acknowledge that many parenting decisions are driven by financial factors. Piano lessons, sports leagues, family vacations: all expensive things. More important than those is simply having enough energy at the end of a day to interact meaningfully with your children. Certainly some of my greatest self-loathing has arisen from the time when I simply didn’t have energy to spend quality time with my kids. (And that absent significant economic stress.)

Limiting screen time is not a decision that is driven by economic concerns. My sons, for example, get 30 minutes of screen time every day. This costs me nothing. (Quite the opposite of course: screens cost money in the first place.)

I can only imagine that our well-meaning author has fallen into a false dichotomy: either I have arranged some fancy expensive upper-class activity with my kids, or I must set them down in front of the television; either I have the time and emotional energy to play a board game, or I have to give them a tablet to while away the hours.

A thousand times no! That this not the decision faced by any parent.

The purpose of keeping screens from kids is to force them to develop their imaginations and their ability to play. They should have to amuse themselves. (And sometimes the parents should be involved, but of course not always.)

Giving a child a device is like leaving junk food around the house. It diverts the children from making a healthy choice, because the unhealthy choice is so easy and convenient. Set a standing rib roast next to a bag of Doritos, and ninety-nine children out of a hundred will reach for the chips. The solution for junk food: don’t buy it. Or buy it, but limit it. The solution for screens: don’t buy them, or buy them but limit them.

It is a worldwide tragedy that billions of children are being raised by glowing rectangles rather than by their own fertile imaginations. So few children know how much fun you can have with a stick, a ball, a pile of sand, a playground.

Poor parents of the world: you have plenty on your plate. It is harder to be consistent in getting to the library. It is inconvenient to go the museums on the free days. Transportation is a constant struggle. You have my admiration for all that you do, and my sympathy for all you wish you could do but can’t. But limiting screen time is an easy decision you can make; it costs nothing, and your children will have a better childhood for it.

I want to close this out with a quotation from Mister Rogers:

The roots of a child’s ability to cope and thrive, regardless of circumstance, lie in that child’s having had at least a small, safe place (an apartment? a room? a lap?) in which, in the companionship of a loving person, that child could discover that he or she was lovable and capable of loving in return. If a child finds this during the first years of life, he or she can grow up to be a competent, healthy person.

In the biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, the point is made that Mister Rogers always made a point to speak in such a way that what he said would be applicable to kids in all situations. Notice that the quote above doesn’t even assume the presence of one parent; it doesn’t even assume the existence of a consistent residence.

Let’s carry forward the legacy of Mister Rogers by recognizing that good childrearing is not the privilege of wealthy people; it doesn’t require every family to be perfect either. The most important things in life cost nothing.