Gayle Schrier Smith, MD, FAAP
To bring awareness to the many screens that surround us, I have begun to ask my patients and their parents, “Tool or Toy? How do you see screen time in your home, and what does it cost you?” Tools live in the world of work, learning and efficiency (something grown-ups value.) Toys define the world of fun, relaxation and play. Both have their place in healthy families, and I would argue that each role is valuable to consider if it is the intention of parents to serve up a healthy media diet. The cost of screen time is both monetary in what our devices cost, but also in the price of lost time… that face to face encounter we want to have with one another.
As I have begun to talk more about the importance of a balanced media diet, the ‘tools and toys’ image has been useful to open those conversations. The sound-bite doesn’t feel judgmental to me, nor does it feel as though I am endorsing any one view of screen time over another. I sometimes share ways in which my iPhone is both a tool and toy, but I am also honest in saying that I have begun to monitor my own ‘play’ time on it.
There is a rapidly changing landscape of available media tools and toys, and they are, to some degree, both good and bad for how they influence children. It is simply time for pediatricians to leverage our ability to engage families, and ask them to learn with us as we all expand our expertise, with evidence-based ideas tested by time and research. It is only with a meaningful and ongoing partnership that we will really understand how much screen time is enough or too much. Meanwhile, a screen time question at every wellness visit will certainly create value for families and a memorable sound- bite. “Tool or Toy” may serve as a frequent reminder that screens are both tool and toy, that they are present everywhere and should be purposefully balanced in a family’s life.