Everything Bad for You is Good for You – Rethinking Netflix and Smartphones

To understand whether screen time is harmful or helpful, you must explore situations fully. How a person uses screens matter. The motives matter. New research shows that we can design situations such that even when using screens, children can develop deep social connections and psychological strengths. Be cautious before rendering negative judgments on enjoying a movie or playing video games. Let’s unpack how to transform a supposed harm into something of great psychological value.

The self-improvement market requires a nemesis. An agreed on enemy that is a time suck, a barrier to meaningful connections, and all-around waste of energy. That enemy continues to be screen time. Negative judgments drip from authors interested in aiding readers toward a more satisfying, efficient lifestyle.

“Watching television is the mental and emotional equivalent of eating junk food.”

“…people were choosing to stay home and watch TV, surf the internet, or play video games rather than commit themselves to some local organization or group.”

“There are effortless shortcuts to feeling positive emotion…you can masturbate, go shopping, take drugs, or watch television.”

Why such harsh comparisons? In the 1980’s viewing options were limited to whatever a television station broadcast at that exact time. Simple content satisfied the masses. Today, author Steven Johnson argues that we are living in a golden age of television entertainment — supposedly bad things are good for you. With sophisticated characters and emotionally rich storylines, documentaries, dramas, and comedies offer audiences an opportunity to gain perspective on lives unlike their own. Television is not a shortcut to positive emotions, it’s a shortcut to developing emotional intelligence. Over the course of two days, my daughters and I dove into several unusual television programs together. What happened to 26-year-old Steve Bartman who became a national pariah for the crime of trying to snag a foul ball as a souvenir during a pivotal Chicago Cubs playoff game? In Magic for Humans, were actors involved when a flying drone delivered packages of the exact objects pedestrians said they wanted? Despite being the most famous painter in the world, how did Bob Ross lose creative control and millions of dollars through a shady business partnership? Interesting conversations ensued during and after these programs.

It’s a bit hyperbolic for culture critics to claim television is on par with junk food and drug use. Three lines of cocaine or ingesting 51 grams of fat and 1,080 calories from a Caramel Pecanbon Cinnabon seem more lethal than contemplating the illusion of magic tricks.

While scholars and authors view television as a scourge, the population acts otherwise. Not the first time the elites misunderstood what happens on the ground level. When 209 million users are on the same Netflix platform, there are opportunities for meaningful conversation around shared pleasures. People from diverse backgrounds can relate around common consumption experiences. People can make inroads on discovering someone’s interests and personality by dissecting what they gravitate towards. My colleagues and I wondered whether the discussion of screen time is too crude. Treating it as something problematic or at best, an inefficiency. Our focus was on young children.

Transforming the Value of Screen time

Excessive exposure to phone and television screens can displace exploratory activities such as free play, socializing with peers, and parent-child interactions. Activities that promote thinking, learning, and childhood development. However, when parents find opportunities to foster conversational exchanges in daily routines with their young children – such as when watching a movie or playing a video game — curiosity can be cultivated. In our research with 5,100 parent-child pairs, we found that the more parents spent time talking with preschool children while watching television together, the more curious those same kids became years later in kindergarten. Lead researcher Dr. Prachi Shah also found that greater curiosity in preschoolers was associated with greater reading and math achievement in kindergarten.

The simple act of being present and interactive with young children is a cost-free strategy to enhance their curiosity, which in turn offers an academic advantage.

But that’s not all. Dr. Prachi Shah wanted to know if building hungry minds are particularly advantageous for children with economic disadvantages. Children from families lacking a budget for healthy foods, academic tutors, and households in safe, enriching neighborhoods. What she found is that the value of curiosity was greater in households with a lower socioeconomic status. In families with fewer financial resources and opportunities, kids received a greater academic boost from being curious. When parents remained present, conversing during screen time, their kids showed a greater boost in curiosity.

Notably, the benefits of curiosity persisted regardless of whether children were high or low in effortful control.  Being able to intentionally direct attention away from distractions and toward important tasks is valuable. But the benefits of curiosity exist above and beyond self-regulatory strength. Dr. Shah’s research offers an alternative to most classroom interventions targeting children’s ability to use the self to regulate the self.

Cultivating Curiosity

Perhaps curiosity serves as an equalizer in a world of opportunity hoarding. While it benefits nearly all children, curiosity is associated with stronger academic gains for children with economic and social disadvantages. No money required. No invitation needed. No gatekeepers. Improve the quality of the early childhood environment and you can help children access, develop, and use their curiosity. Primary caregivers have everything in their behavioral arsenal to start promoting curiosity today. Just be:

  • Fully present with young children occupied by something stimulating
  • Pointing out wonders
  • Discussing what is interesting
  • Constantly asking questions
  • Listening intently for what grabs the child’s attention or evokes emotion
  • Following up on the child’s interests, confusion, fears, desires, and aspirations.

If we care about child development, academic achievement, and finding ways to nurture children who experience economic hardships, there is sufficient science to justify increasing the emphasis on curiosity.

A Word about Inefficiencies

I feel compelled to return to the authors of non-fiction self-improvement books that treat television, Netflix, video games, and online entertainment as a cultural wasteland. What are socially acceptable, sanctioned activities? Horseback riding? Swimming? Sudoku? When poverty exists, fewer options are available. Not everyone has the luxury of sending their kids to pricey athletic leagues and after school cooking programs. Screens are not inherently a diversion. They are also a vehicle for creating and connecting. A portal for a child to learn about cultural norms.

Enjoy an inefficient hour with a child, asking, what happened in the show that made you laugh? What is it about this video game that excites you? Stare at something aesthetically beautiful together, commenting about what you’re both feeling. Observe a new dance and experiment with feeble attempts to mirror the movements. I wonder. What are we trying to replace these inefficient moments for? To be more productive? To absorb additional podcasts as fodder for the next dinner party? To do what exactly?

Consider the words of Anna Wiener, author of Uncanny Valley.

Unfortunately for me, I liked my inefficient life. I liked listening to the radio and cooking with excessive utensils; slivering onions, detangling wet herbs. Long showers and stoned museum-wandering. I liked riding public transportation: watching strangers talk to their children; watching strangers stare out the window at the sunset, and at photos of the sunset on their phones. I liked taking long walks to purchase onigiri in Japantown, or taking long walks with no destination at all. Folding the laundry. Copying keys. Filling out forms. Phone calls. I even liked the post office, the predictable discontent of bureaucracy. I liked full albums, flipping the record. Long novels with minimal plot; minimalist novels with minimal plot. Engaging with strangers. Getting into it. Closing down the restaurant, having one last drink. I liked grocery shopping: perusing the produce; watching everyone chew in the bulk aisle.

Warm laundry, radio, waiting for the bus. I could get frustrated, overextended, overwhelmed, uncomfortable. Sometimes I ran late. But these banal inefficiencies—I thought they were luxuries, the mark of the unencumbered. Time to do nothing, to let my mind run anywhere, to be in the world. At the very least, they made me feel human.

There are no guilty pleasures. Only pleasures. Aspire for more than optimizing productivity. Enjoy moments of fun. Moments of connection. Moments of appreciating wonder with the child sitting beside you. When you want a refreshment, choose entertainment that works with your personality, your interests, your people, and your preferred lifestyle. Help the kids do the same.


How can you transform a screen time activity into an event that offers social connection with another person?

What invigorating activities can you inject into your day that have nothing to do with productivity? Take a close look at the list in the Anna Wiener quote above. Your brain requires respites during waking hours as much as intellectual stretching. These two types of moments are not opposing forces. They operate in synergy.

Know a parent? Someone with strong views about screen time? 
Share these Provoked ideas with them!

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is Professor of Psychology and leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. His latest book, available for pre-order, is The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively.