Not All Screen Time is the Same

“Rather than trying to minimize screen time, I think parents and teachers should try to maximize creative time. “

Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Lab

Digital screen time has become an inseparable part of our kids’ life. Whether they are toddlers, school-age kids or teenagers, children are growing up with technology today.

Managing kids’ media use causes anxiety in many parents. You simply can’t help wondering: how much screen time is too much? Studies show that most parents are more concerned about placing limits on their kids’ screen time than on the content the kids are engaging with.

Recent research suggests that it is the nature of the screen time rather than the length that matters. So, instead of worrying about the device use limit, parents should think: is my child learning? Will hi-tech activities engage my child in artistic expression and creative thinking?

Parents should not focus on time kids spend using technologies, but what children are using them for. It is what they do online that matters. For example, it is not the same if your 11-year old boy spends hours playing a violent video game, browsing social media, or doing research for a school project.

Digital Technology Opportunities and Risks

We live in a highly technological society where modern technologies have changed the whole concept of the world we live in, from entertainment and art to education and economics. Modern technologies have brought a significant number of improvements to traditional school curriculums, offering online learning programs that engage kids to gain, evaluate, and expand their knowledge. These learning programs can be accessed from school or home where the whole family may be included in the learning process.

A recent report from UNICEF examined the online experiences of kids and teenagers around the world. Their results suggest that children under 18 represent 1 in 3 Internet users globally. They found that online resources make young users the most connected generation today. Digital media provides almost limitless access to information, education, and work.

According to another report from the London School of Economics, kids’ screen-time does not necessarily lead to isolation from family and friends. The report suggests that digital media can help bring families together, as parents and children play games, use apps, and watch movies and documentaries together.

Nevertheless, digital resources bring serious dangers as well. Harms such as sexual abuse, child pornography, and sex trafficking are intensified by the Internet nowadays, especially in the developing world. At the same time, in the developed countries there are rising concerns about the connections between Internet use and mental health problems such as anxiety or depression in youth.

However, the authors of the study believe that the right approach in addressing these concerns can be in “not too much, not too little” line – focusing more on the nature of kids’ screen time than on the amount of time they spend online.

For example, programs like Scratch have a long tradition of developing creative learning and critical thinking in children. Developed by Mitchel Resnick and MIT Media Lab, Scratch is a free programing language and an online platform where kids can use digital media to create their own interactive games, stories, and animations. This only confirms that smartphones, iPads, tablets, and computers can be used to spark creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

According to Jenny Radesky, a developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and the author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children, the most important is for parents to act as “media mentors” and teach their children how to “use media to create, connect, and learn”.

Finally, studies suggest that screen-time limits may have nothing to do with your child’s ability to grow and develop.

The Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University 2017 study of 20,000 parents of children aged 2 to 5 in the U.K. showed that there was no correlation between limiting the screen time and children’s well-being. They found that the limits on screen time over the course of a month were not necessarily associated with positive outcomes in children. Their findings suggest that it is important how a family uses the devices, rather than the amount of time they spend in front of the screen. On the opposite, the researchers found small links between moderately higher screen use and children’s good moods.

Screen time won’t prevent your child’s ability to thrive. It is essential, however, to provide opportunities for kids to develop critical thinking, imagination, and creativity while browsing. In the world where kids are growing up surrounded by technology, it is crucial to help them learn concepts of media use. Parents play an essential role in teaching these skills.

I recommend visiting commonsensemedia.org for guidance about safe content for children and families.