A few weeks ago, RFTG published a review of Betsy Childs Howard’s new book Polly and the Screen Time Overload (Crossway, 2022). In the time since the review was published, RFTG Editor Zach Kendrick was given the opportunity to ask Betsy a few questions about the book and practical advice regarding screen time. What follows are the author’s responses to questions submitted by the editor.
Betsy Childs Howard is an editor for the Gospel Coalition. She is the author of Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up and Seasons of Waiting. Betsy lives with her family in Manhattan, where her husband pastors Good Shepherd Anglican Church.
Why do you believe that excessive screen time has become such an issue in modern western culture?
Screens are no longer just something we use for entertainment; they are now how we receive most of our information and communicate with one another. Our kids are growing up as digital natives, accepting that most of human knowledge can be accessed through a smartphone. Yet screens have an addictive quality that leads to passivity. When we live on our screens, we become the disciples of influencers and those who have mined our data, and the more time our kids spend on screens, the more they lose the ability to entertain themselves.
There are many who do not see the detriment that excessive screen time can have, not only on children, but adults as well. What would you say to people who hold that view regarding the benefits of limited screen time for child development?
Because many products for kids—from apps to television shows—bill themselves as educational, some adults feel good about putting their kids in front of a screen or handing them a tablet. Not only are the kids occupied, but their caregivers believe they will be better educated afterward. This mindset overlooks what kids might be doing if they weren’t having screen time, such as reading, expending physical energy, or engaging in imaginative play. It also doesn’t take into account the way screen time saps a child’s energy and enthusiasm for other pursuits after the screen is turned off.
I find it helpful to compare screen time to sugar consumption. It’s pleasurable, and it’s not harmful in moderation. But the more sugar one consumes, the less desire one will have for healthy, non-sugary food. By limiting kids’ screen time, we allow them to develop tastes for the type of play and activities that will truly expand their minds and imagination.
What advice would you give to a parent whose child struggles with limitations on screen time?
Try not to fall into daily negotiations with your child about how much screen time they will have. Determine a daily limit, communicate that to the child, then make every effort to be consistent in enforcing the boundaries you’ve set for your family. Kids will quickly learn to accept limits once they know they aren’t open to negotiations.
The illustrations by Samara Hardy are very well done, and you have worked with her before on other projects. How do you think that Samara’s illustrations not only help to illustrate but also help to tell the stories you right?
I appreciate how detailed Samara’s illustrations are. Intricate illustrations make children want to read a book over and over because they notice new things with each repeat reading.
One thing that I love about the illustrations for Polly and Screen Time Overload is how the farm animals watch Polly while she’s glued to her tablet. They almost act as surrogates for the children who are reading the book, observing Polly’s excess from afar and recognizing that she’s missing out on everything going on in the real world.
Are your storybook characters and the issues they face based on your own experience with your children or are they based on other experiences?
My characters are based on memories of my own childhood. I never did the things that Arlo and Polly did, but I remember vividly what it was like to be a child, and those memories inform the way children in my books think.
Do you find the writing process easy or difficult?
The process of coming up with a story can be difficult, but once I’ve thought of the plot and the character, a book almost writes itself. If that character seems real to me, writing the story feels more like discovering what they are going to do than deciding what will happen.
Your book is more than simply a good child children’s book, it is truly an excellent resource for families. How do you hope to see this book impact the lives of children and their families?
Thank you! I hope that this book will start children thinking about how to keep screen time within healthy limits long before they are making their own choices about technology. I also hope that it will give parents a starting point for conversations about moderation when it comes to things that are not bad, but may make us miss out on something else that is better.
Do you have any future books in progress currently?
We have three more books coming out in the TGC Kids series illustrated by Samara Hardy, but they were written by other authors. The next book is called Meg Is Not Alone by Megan Hill. It tells a story about a little girl who accidentally gets left at her church. I hope to write another book in the series, and I have an inkling that it may be about Arlo, the character from my first book Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up.
Zach Kendrick is the editor of Reading For The Glory.
Editor’s Note: RFTG would like to thank the author for generously taking the time to provide thoughtful answers to these questions. Additionally, gratitude is owed to Crossway publicists Lauren Susanto and Lo Milkowski for arranging and coordinating the interview process.
Like the content you see on Reading For The Glory? We invite you to subscribe to the reviews by providing your email at the bottom of this page. You can also follow us on Twitter @reading4glory and Instagram @readingfortheglory