The amount of time a child spends in front of a screen is not the problem. The type and quality of the material on the screen is the problem.
Would we complain about a child who spends six hours each day reading books? Possibly. If the six hours was spent reading trashy novels, it may be a problem. If it was six hours spent reading the works of the great philosophers or scientific research, then it is not a problem. One enhances the mind; the other may not.
Screen time is similar, as a screen, like a book, is simply a window into another world of information. It can allow a child to interact with great minds and ideas, or it can be a distraction. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Television is chewing gum for the eyes.” In some cases, computer screens can be chewing gum for the brain, but only if parents and teachers allow it to be.
Yet we get headlines such as:
- Too much screen time is biggest health concern for kids, parents say.
- Too much screen time creates health risk for children.
- Research links children’s psychological problems to prolonged screen time.
- Lack of exercise leads to unhealthy lifestyles.
- Devices in schools and at home means too much screen time for
Yet these headlines make an assumption. They assume that the situation is black and white; that their headline and a positive outcome are mutually exclusive; that if you have a lot of screen time, then you must have:
- social problems
- posture problems
- insufficient exercise and obesity
- addiction to games, internet videos and so on
- lack of sleep
You can have lots of positive screen time without these problems, it just takes knowledge, planning and effort.
It takes adults to guide and modify a child’s behaviour if necessary. After all, that is also what parents and schools do – help children develop positive habits that are needed for life rather than simply allowing them to do what they want; habits such as resilience, self-regulation, social skills, getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise and so on. There is a big list.
In the past, guiding children to develop into well-rounded people was a part of good parenting and good schooling. What has changed? Adding technology should not change anything.
For those who may be wondering, I am a father of three daughters and I am a teacher. This is not just uninformed theory. I also lead eLearning in a high tech K12 school where I can introduce you to many students who use screens a lot who:
- are successful academically
- are fit and healthy
- have good interpersonal relationships and lots of ‘normal’ friends
- have plenty of interests outside of screens, including sports, cultural activities and so on
- have excellent communication skills
- have plenty of knowledge in many of areas and can converse well with adults
- do not have posture problems
- do not generally have lack of sleep but, if they do occasionally it is because they are working hard, for example,on exam revision, a dance final or music exam
- are not lethargic and in fact try to fit more into a day than many adults
The headlines mentioned previously are generalisations that are designed to attract attention and feed a fear of something new. They may be true in situations where technology has not been introduced properly into a school, or where parents feel overwhelmed, but they are not true everywhere. Perhaps the authors of those headlines should visit schools where technology works and families where technology is used but is not a problem to determine what should be done, rather than focusing on the situations where technology enables poor outcomes.
Does it take extra planning and effort to guide children now that technology is in the world? Yes, but kids are kids and adults are adults. It is the job of parents and schools to guide children to become well-rounded and successful adults. We had better get it right as the technology is not going away. If we do not teach children at school and throughout their younger years to be the masters of technology, when will they learn? When they graduate school and are at TAFE or university? When they get a job? Do we expect a switch will just flick in their brain when they leave school and everything will be okay? Really?
So, what about some of the problems?
Ensuring Internet Content is Appropriate (at School)
Good schools have filtering software. Is it perfect? No. Is it generally effective? Yes. My school has a system where a teacher can list the websites, videos and so on that each student in the class is accessing. It is effective when needed.
Good teachers also know what students are doing. Students who may be distracted should be in a location where their screen is visible; they should not be in the back corner of a room. Students in classes of active teachers are rarely off task with their computer.
Students in some schools bypass school-filtered Internet access by connecting to their phone’s Internet, a process called tethering or hotspotting. Good schools are aware of this. Students at my school know this is not allowed and that it has negative consequences. We actively look for student hotspots, therefore, their use is rare.
Ensuring Internet Content is Appropriate (at Home)
Parents have many resources at their disposal, including ‘rules’ for the use of technology that greatly reduce problems at home. Home Internet filtering is available relatively cheaply. It can even automatically turn off Internet access at a scheduled time. It can also limit mobile phone or tablet use, even during school hours. Family Zone is one example. I know parents who swear by it and would not be without it.
There are many sites that provide guidelines and support for parents, such as Internet Safe Education The Allanah & Madeline Foundation iParent and ThinkUKnow .They help parents set guidelines and boundaries.
Hours in Front of a Screen
Long hours without a break in front of any screen is not good. Children need to know this. Ensure it does not happen at home. After all, who is the adult and who is the child? Can it cause arguments and tension? Yes, particularly at the start. However, problems generally disappear once the rules become the norm.
If it happens at school, the school has not set up its eLearning programs properly. It is worth noting that just because laptops or other computers are used in a school, it does not mean the learning has changed. In some schools, computers are used mainly for research on the Internet and typing notes. If this is the bulk of what is happening, then there are big problems.
Changing to technology-enhanced learning requires much more than just computers. In fact, they are one of the final pieces of the puzzle. There are many articles about successfully developing technology-enhanced learning in school and there are known solutions.
There are so many other negative points raised about screen time that can be refuted, yet space here does not permit. However, I will be dealing with these in later articles.
Technology is not going away and it continues to improve our lives. We must be more than the ostrich with its head in the sand ignoring it. Children and screens are just another phase and good parenting and teaching allow the problems to be overcome. We need to rise to the challenge; our children deserve it.
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