Active vs passive screen time: educate children in healthy device use

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Yaroslava Kalko


active and passive screen time

Do your children spend night and day with iPads in hand? Are you sick and tired of trying to convince them to abandon useless screen time? The time they spend in front of screens doesn’t have to be all bad. Not all screen time is equal and kids can get real cognitive benefits and social skills out of their screen time if approached correctly. Let’s take a look at how this can be achieved.

Different types of screen time

With the invasion of technology into our life, a large range of screen time types have appeared. One way to assess the potential benefit of screen time consumption is by considering whether it’s active or passive.


Passive consumption is when a child passively absorbs information from the screen or consumes an app or a game through mindless repetition. Passive activities can include monitoring social media (infinite scrolling with minimal interaction), watching videos on Youtube (especially if autoplay is on, i.e. the next video is not chosen, but watched only because it was offered), playing repetitive games and binge watching shows.

The main characteristic of passive screen time is that no thought, creativity or interaction is required to progress.


Active screen time, on the contrary, involves cognitive and/or physical engagement in the process of using a device. This might include activities like making Youtube videos, playing educational games, editing pictures, coding a website etc. Kids are expected to reply, draw a picture, create or move. More than that, language, social and physical skills are developing.

In fact, any software that involves effort on the part of the child might have an educational side which can potentially promote learning. Even video games can sometimes be regarded as active screen time if they promote physical or cognitive activity.

While monitoring and scrolling through social media is very much a passive activity, engaging in conversation, taking photos and posting them to your account or writing posts that explore ideas and provoke discussion are all more active types of engagement. The same program can be passive or active depending on how it is used.

As parents we can actually help improve the quality of our kids screen time by making them think critically about an experience that was otherwise passive. Ask them about the pictures or videos they saw on social media – why do they like certain types of pictures? Do they think those pictures show the real life of the people shown? How is the game they’re playing similar to real life? How is it different? These sorts of examinations can help transform a session of passive screen time into something more active. 

Educational apps

A lot of apps promote themselves as being “educational”. Be careful with this label though, and check what they mean by this, as a lot of supposedly educational apps still include a large passive element. Furthermore, a lot of the educational value in such apps is not inherent in the content itself, but comes through your joint engagement, repetition, and exploration of the ideas found in the app alongside your child.  

The best, truly educational apps are those which encourage children to engage with interests outside of the app itself, like iNaturalist’s Seek app, which encourages users (including kids) to look at the world around them and find out more with the help of the app. 

Age appropriate screen consumption

As children grow, they mature and their needs and abilities change. Let’s have a look at how active and passive screen time consumption recommendations change as a child grows up. None of these numbers constitutes firm medical advice, it’s our opinions about what’s appropriate based on personal observation and wider reading. It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of grey areas and room for individual customization when it comes to child screen time.

Age 0-6

Passive. No passive screen time is recommended. There’s no point to it. During this period a child’s brain is rather fragile so passive consumption should be totally avoided. It can potentially delay language development, limit vocabulary or possibly contribute to even more serious problems like insomnia, depression and screen addiction.

Active. Software for communicating with the members of the family are good for developing social skills and improving vocabulary at this point. Spend family time by playing learning games and using interactive fun activities together.

Age 6-10

Passive. While passive screen time is generally to be avoided, watching or playing popular or iconic shows and games can be an important part of a child’s cultural education. With this in mind, a couple of hours per week of passive screen time might be considered an acceptable concession. Remember that you can improve the quality of such screen time by discussing the content with your kids.

Active.Use active screen time opportunities that build on your child’s interests and talents. Encourage creative pastimes whether that involves drawing, making and editing videos or building game levels using an in-game level creator (an option in some, but not most games). Allow up to an hour a day engaging with these sorts of activities. Discover what your children find interesting, guide them, and keep an eye out to avoid it becoming passive screen time.

Age 10-14

Passive. Be sure to discuss with your children the content they watch as well as the reasons why you restrict the time. By this age you’d expect children to have a good understanding of the effect screen time has on them personally and the reasoning behind the boundaries you place. Encourage them to choose the content they consume carefully and selectively.

Active. As tweens and teens attach huge significance to peer communication, we need to be supportive in their exploration of the media and messaging tools they use to achieve this. At the same time, it’s vital to check in regularly, discuss the potential dangers inherent in online communication (e.g. bullying, grooming, etc.) and provide an example of appropriate use yourself. Promote using screen time for creative purposes (e.g. they could try their hand at animation, or video editing) so long as this doesn’t interfere with other aspects of life.

Age 14-18

Passive. At this stage many teens are independent enough to make most of their own decisions about screen time. At the same time, they’re especially prone to binging on games and shows or investing a lot of their identity in their virtual presence. Keep an eye out for these things and talk regularly about what healthy screen time looks like as well as discussing the content they’re consuming.

Active. Teens should be given a fairly free hand concerning creative screen time unless it hampers the rhythm of their everyday life. Don’t forget to take an interest in how your kids spend time and discuss healthy screen time. This might include learning new skills or coding a website, making digital music or editing pictures, depending on their interests.


Overall, our task as parents is to create positive screen time for our children. Take an active part in managing device usage and promoting healthy habits. Choose the best types of activities to fit your family and you’ll see how your child will benefit from modern technology. In the end, real-life communication and recreational activities cannot be replaced by technology.