Full disclosure: I'm a child of the '70s, and in my early years, I watched a lot of television. Even with no cable, a handful of stations and crumby, snowy reception, I still managed to burn a cringe-worthy number of hours staring at the tube. It was the same for most kids of my generation. I get why parents are wary of their 21st-century, digital-native kids becoming addicted to the time they spend curled up with a gadget. I'm that way with my kid, too.
Even fuller disclosure: I'm an interactive media producer who focuses on kids' stuff. Even in my line of work, I'd never condone letting a device babysit a kid, nor would I recommend allowing unlimited online/mobile play time. I still very much believe in kids climbing trees, banging on pots and pans, and making critters out of egg cartons and pipe cleaners.
However, I do get to see some pretty amazing stuff being produced, and I want to come to the defence of screen time (at least in small doses). While a healthy dose of parental skepticism is fine, it's important not to throw the iPad out with the bathwater.
There's quality stuff out there, in terms of programming, apps and games
There's more to do on screen than blow stuff up and do makeovers. Developers (myself included) put a lot of time and effort into building stuff that's actually helpful and fun, with only the necessary amount of fluff. For a good chunk of our kids' younger years, we're still in charge of what gets downloaded onto their devices. We can do our homework, read reviews and look for better material. Trust me, it's there.
What a kid gravitates toward during screen time can be an amazing indicator of a their general interests, aspirations and talents.
Educational does not equal boring
Just as tech has advanced, so have approaches to learning. We're at a point where we can put teaching tools on a device and our kids probably won't notice or care that they're being enriched while they watch and play. Don't assume that your kid won't like using anything worthwhile, and don't assume that something entertaining can't be loaded with learning objectives. You can find apps and games to cover just about any subject area, including a few that aren't usually taught in schools.
Unlike the television we grew up with, most new media is anything but passive
Screen time can be, and usually is, interactive, asking kids to build, create, evaluate and communicate. On those occasions when we do let our kids have a little more access than we normally would (and we all have those occasions), we can get them to do a lot more than stare blankly.
You can share screen time with a kid
Really, you can. You're allowed to watch and play along with your kids. Road test their apps and games with them, and don't be ashamed to admit that you had fun and learned something, too.
Screen time can be used as a springboard for other offline activities
If your kid is obsessed with building imaginary worlds in a gaming environment, have them recreate them as works of art or short stories to accompany these worlds. Let your kid play sports online for a little while, and then find something similar for them to do in the backyard. Tie science apps to real science experiments in the kitchen. What a kid gravitates toward during screen time can be an amazing indicator of a their general interests, aspirations and talents, and most on-screen activities can be tied to something a little more low-tech.
It's becoming easier for kids to create their own digital media
If you're not happy with what's out there and you want your wee consumer to make the most of their screen time, get them to step into the role of producer. It's easier and more accessible than you think.
Shying away from screen time in general could be a missed opportunity.
Say what you like about millennials and generation alphas, but they are very discerning consumers of media. There's so much available that apps, games and other materials have to be better, more interesting and more applicable in order to hold anyone's attention. Encourage your kid to be a critic by asking what they thought about their screen-time experiences. What were they asked to do? What did they learn? What did it make them think and how did it make them feel? If they were designing this material, what would they do differently?
Send your kid a message that tech is a tool, and it if it isn't working for them, they don't have to use it or watch it, even if it's flashy, colourful or popular. Our kids are digital natives, and just because tech is part of their daily reality, it doesn't mean that even little kids can't learn to use it responsibly.
Parents may be concerned about appropriate ages and time limits (and rightfully so), but shying away from screen time in general could be a missed opportunity. Set a timer, allow screen time only as a reward, or insist that you have the last word on what gets downloaded. Do whatever you need to do to feel more confident and comfortable with your kid using it, but don't underestimate the value of a little bit of screen time.
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