Photo by verkeorg, Flickr CC

As the weather heats up and the school year draws to a close, many parents ponder the best ways to keep their kids occupied during the summer months, given their own resources and obligations. Electronic devices are always a popular option, but how much screen time to permit young children can be a tough decision to make, and one that parents themselves are often judged for.

To help parents devise a plan for their kids’ devices, a team of international experts shared their latest recommendations in a recent World Health Organization press release regarding children’s sedentary behavior, physical activity, and sleep. The report concluded that for preschool-aged children, sedentary screen time should be limited to an hour, and the less the better. They also recommended that kids be physically active for at least three hours a day; more is preferable. This implies that parents should replace children’s reduced screen time with time spent actively engaging in physical activity and interactive play so as to further motor skills and cognitive development.

Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco points out in The Atlantic, however, that such guidelines make a number of assumptions that may not be true for all families:

“If parents are letting their kids watch TV, or keeping them cooped up inside, or keeping them strapped in a car seat for an hour or more, it’s not because they think it’s good for their kids. Parents make those decisions because they don’t have any other choice. Or, at least, because the alternatives require more money or more space or more energy or more patience than those parents have on any given day.”

Some parents may have access to paid childcare, extracurriculars, safe outdoor spaces, or libraries with high-quality children’s programming, but these constructive alternatives are out-of-reach for many families. In fact, less-privileged parents often turn to screen time because it’s a safer or more educational choice than other options. On Twitter, Calarco concludes that strict screen-time guidelines are problematic because they treat screen time as a choice, rather than a necessity. This framing, in turn, heightens the already intense scrutiny faced by disadvantaged parents.