06/01/2017 11:13 EDT | Updated 06/01/2017 11:13 EDT

We Have To Do More Than Just Limit Our Kids' Screen Time

"Daddy, does Pokémon Go count as screen time?"

My eight-year-old son was excited to play the augmented-reality game that superimposes Pikachus and Squirtles onto the real world through your smartphone camera. He knows, though, that in our home more time with screens now means less time later, so he wanted to know if playing Pokémon Go would come at the expense of watching Pokémon cartoons.

This isn't the first time the question has come up, but in the past, when he was playing Pokémon games on the Wii, the answer was easy: screen time is screen time. But Pokémon Go is different, in ways that make our usual reasons for limiting screen time less relevant.

child smartphone

You don't just sit on a couch and move a controller or click a mouse: instead, you walk around your neighbourhood in search of cartoon critters to catch. Nor is it antisocial or solitary, because at least one of us always comes with him when he's out hunting Pokémon. As well, though I don't love the relentless marketing of the Pokémon franchise, the game is at least free of some of the gender stereotyping that's in the cartoon. So my initial answer was, "I haven't decided yet."

The fact is that this isn't just about Pokémon Go, or even augmented reality in general. As my kids get older they get more interested in screen-based activities that are hard to compare directly with watching cartoons. When my son is writing a short story on the computer, or his brother is making stop-motion videos with the camera on my phone, does that count as screen time? Or when we're researching his favourite animals? What about something like Minecraft, my nephews' obsession, a computer game that has as many creative possibilities as a bottomless box of Lego?

What I've realized from all this is that while keeping track of how much screen time kids get is still important, it's no longer enough: instead, we need to look at what's in the media kids are consuming and what they are doing with it, not to mention the messages we send to children through our own behaviour.

If I see Pokémon Go as a more positive form of screen time, for instance, will I feel better about checking my email when I take the boys to the museum? Is listening for the buzz that signals a nearby Pokémon training my son for a lifetime of being tethered to his phone? And although playing the game brings kids to parks and art galleries, what are we saying about healthy media habits if we think it's okay to see the world through a screen?

These questions came to mind in part due to my involvement in developing the Canadian Paediatric Society's new position statement, Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. When it comes to screen use, we need to do more than count hours.

child smartphone

Minimizing screen time is still important, and there's a lot of evidence that when kids are younger than two it's important to keep it as close to zero as possible. For older kids, though, we also need to mitigate their screen use by addressing stereotyping and other problematic content and embracing active, social and creative experiences. Besides considering how our kids are using screens, we have to become more conscious of the ways we model our use of technology and the messages we're sending each time we whip out our phones to check our email.

The good news is that by asking me the question that started all this off, my son is already showing that he's on the way to acquiring a skill that all of us need to learn: how to use screens mindfully, by choosing our media experiences with an understanding that screen time comes at the expense of other things.

Matthew Johnson is Director of Education for MediaSmarts, Canada's centre for digital and media literacy, and a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society's Digital Media Task Force.

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