All Screen Time is Not Equal: The Different Types of Screen Time

In this article Cindy discusses that all screen time is not equal and provides a description of the different types of screen time, including passive, interactive, educational and other.

All Screen Time is Not Equal The Different Types of Screen Time

Screen time is an issue that lots of parents and educators around the world worry about. From a young age, humans are now being exposed to screens more and more. According to the CDC (2019), children ages 8-10 spend around 6 hours a day in front of a screen. However, it is more complex than just that exposure. The actual reason behind why and how someone is using a screen has an impact on how it affects you, potentially meaning that “the high levels of concern about… children’s screen time exhibited by parents may be unwarranted” (Sanders et al., 2019). Curious to know the difference between consuming and creating on screens, I wanted to research a little more about different types of screen times.

Sanders et al., (2019) outline five different types of screen time: Social, Passive, Interactive, Educational, and Other. Each of these areas have specific contexts for how the screen is being used. 

Different Types of Screen Time


I think social screen time is a fairly obvious context to most people. Social screen time is when we are connecting with family members (Let Grow, 2021), friends, or others on social media platforms, chats, and video conferences. Sanders et al., (2019) found that while low levels of social screen time may benefit social functioning, high levels of it may displace face-to-face time with other humans. They also found that social screen time was related to poorer health-related quality of life overall, and worse socio-emotional outcomes. 


Passive screen time is more consumptive. Playing video games, using mindless apps on a phone or tablet, or watching TV (Swinson, 2018). Resnick (2018a) describes passive screen time as having an anti-social impact. We sit and get sucked into our screen without interacting with those around us. Hogenboom (n.d.) believes that passive screen time reduced the creative imagination of children because instead of having real-life experiences, the screen is doing the work for them. Sanders et al., (2019) found that passive screen time is the most detrimental to human beings. There is no physical benefit, and we end up with worse prosocial behaviour, and lower persistence. I do not find any of this surprising, and definitely think that passive screen time is the most anti-social of all of the contexts.


Interactive screen time is where the person is interacting with the real world through their device. This could be a nature app to help identify plants, or asking children to document family time (Let Grow, 2021). Sanders et al., (2019) found that interactive screen time had positive associations with educational outcomes. If teachers harness this interactive element in their lessons, there could be some more positive affects on learning.


Educational content, when well-designed, can have a positive impact on behaviour, literacy, and cognitive ability (Hogenboom, n.d.). However, just because something is labelled as educational does not always mean that it provides an enriching experience (Common Sense Media, n.d.). Programs and apps are not always vetted by experienced educators. Sanders et al., (2019) found no negative relations to educational screen time, including any homework students were completing. Most of their findings were beneficial – related to achievement and persistence. Sanders, et al also found no negative relations for this screen time context, and stated that “Educational screen time… appears beneficial and would not fit the less-is-better… hypotheses.”


Sanders et al., (2019) ‘other’ category was not well defined. I wondered if creativity might have fallen within this context, but it did not seem like it. This seemed more of a random use of a screen with no significant length of time spent on it, nor having any significant associations with the outcomes of their study. This makes me wonder if/where/when the children they were studying spent any time creating on their iPad.

What About Creativity

From my research, I wonder where creativity falls within Sanders et al., (2019) classifications. It was not clear if or when they were observing children using their iPads to draw, make movies, code problems, or anything of that sort. 

I find this interesting, because other articles I read seemed to divide screen time into active or passive, or sometimes creative or consumptive. In Swinson’s (2018) definition of creative screen time, it is outlined as something that facilitates creation and has people being constructive on their device. This could be in the form of digital art, coding, movie making, etc. Resnick (2018b) promotes his coding platform Scratch to be low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls. I like that definition because it opens up the conversation to how something can be created. Not just an easy entry point for all levels of learner, but a creative lens of how someone might express themselves in something they construct.

I am still interested to know more about the difference between creative and consumptive screen time on a scientific level. Further research on this, and how the brain reacts to different types of screen time could be done.

So What

Many of the sources I read took the strong stance of not mandating screen time. Casa-Todd (2021) asks families to name it. When children are asking for screen time, get them to name what it is they would like to do. Are they watching a video? Going onto social media? Playing a game? Creating something? Having a balance of what they are engaging with is important, and labelling what they are doing can help with that balance. The CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) says that limiting screen time makes it become a treat (Let Grow, 2021). People like to binge on treats, meaning when children finally get their iPad time they might only use it for purposes that satisfy that treat lens.

Common Sense Media (n.d.) encourages parents to look for how the screen is engaging the child. Is there a connection? Critical thinking? Creativity? What is the context? I believe this is the right frame of mind parents and educators should have. How is this tool helping the child think and create something sort of expression of their own. 

Resnick (2018a) has the opinion that people who are making the argument for less screen time are missing the point. The point is that a balance needs to be found. Parents and educators should help children to maximize creative thinking and creative expression, rather than limiting screen time overall. He also points out that “Computer pioneer Alan Kay likes to say that technology is anything that was invented after you were born.” He continues to say that to our children today, the devices we use are not high tech, but every day tools. As adults, we need to remember this when we are guiding our children or students in using these tools.


In conclusion, there are many different types of screen time. Each has its own purpose and weight in an ideally balanced life. Recognizing and naming what you are using the screen for is important in the upkeep of this balance. Striving for more time spent on connection, critical thinking, and creativity are probably the better contexts for screen time.


5 types of screen time you must know. Dash Camp – Kids Virtual Events. Retrieved September 26, 2021 from 

Casa-Todd, J. (2021, April 25). Addressing screen time concerns. Jennifer Casa-Todd. 

CDC. (2019, January 23). Infographics—Screen time vs. Lean time. 

Christner, C. (2018). Saying Yes to Screen Time: The Wired Library explores tech topics relevant to public librarians. Public Libraries, 57(6), 16–18.

Common Sense Media. (no date). Are some types of screen time better than others? 

Creative screen time. (2020, September 24). Black Hills Parent. 

Hogenboom, M. (no date). Why not all screen time is the same for children. Retrieved September 26, 2021 from 

Kock, E. de. (2016, November 10). Passive vs creative screen time. Tech Age Kids | Technology for Children. 

No need for screen time limits, says digital education expert. (2021, September 10). Let Grow.

Resnick, M. (2018a, January 22). Screen time? How about creativity time? MIT MEDIA LAB. 

Resnick, M. (2018b). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. MIT Press Ltd.

Sanders, T., Parker, P. D., del Pozo-Cruz, B., Noetel, M., & Lonsdale, C. (2019). Type of screen time moderates effects on outcomes in 4013 children: Evidence from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 16(1), 117. 

Swinson, T. (2018, November 12). Consumption versus creation: The good and bad screen time. 


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