09/18/2013 12:04 EDT | Updated 11/18/2013 05:12 EST

It's Not How Much Screen Time Kids Have, But How They Use It

What was your childhood like?

Screens (beyond the television) played a pervasive part in my upbringing. We were one of the first families to have a set-top video game platform (first Pong, then Atari 2600). We had a personal computer long before anyone knew what to do with them. My brothers and I would spend countless hours tag-teaming the programming code of a clown bouncing up and down from the magazine of Compute, only to spend many more hours looking for typos and trying to de-bug our failed attempts.

I was once sent home from school, because I had written a book report and printed it up on a dot matrix printer, instead of writing it by hand. The teacher said that they couldn't be sure I had written it, because it was printed by a primitive home printer and not in my own handwriting. With all of that screen time, I still wasted countless hours watching cartoons and television... and playing video games. Looking back, those screens anesthetized my thinking. Time that should have been spent reading, writing, drawing or whatever. Instead, I sat there. Staring. Into the glow of the tubes. Sure, the video games may have helped with some hand-eye coordination, but the technology was still nascent.

What about now?

Video games look real. The better video games require strategy, thinking, leadership skills, communications skills and more. Few people just sit and stare at their iPads, most are deeply engaged, creating, sharing and curating. Still, when we think about smartphones, tablets and kids, we let our dogma creep in. It's hard to read the MediaPost news item, Kids Using Tablets, Apps More, and not feel like we may be doing some kind of damage to the future generations due to the massive growth in their usage of these devices.

From the article: "According to research from The NPD Group, nearly 80 per cent of parents who have children between the ages of 2 and 14 have some type of mobile device (such as a cell phone, smartphone or tablet) -- a jump of 16 per cent over the previous year. In 2012, after conducting its first study looking at kids and apps, fewer than half the families surveyed had smart devices, and only about a third of children had used a tablet or smartphone. This year, 51 per cent of children had used a smartphone or tablet, and furthermore, nearly 40 per cent of these kids were considered a primary user of these devices."

Is this good news or bad news?

This week, Google hosted their invite-only event Google Zeitgeist in Phoenix, Arizona. During a session titled, Dare To Challenge, Campbell Brown (CNN and NBC News) asked Joel Klein (CEO of Amplify and former New York City School Chancellor) about kids, screens and constant connectivity. It's a precarious issue with many different value-based thoughts along with disparate research about whether or not it's good for kids to be in front of screens as much as they are.

His comments were somewhat surprising, intensely pragmatic and very raw: "What is the kid doing on the screen? That's what is important." Yes, kids must learn how to ride a bike, speak a different language, have good diction and a proper handwriting style, but these are no longer dumb screens pushing asinine content out there (granted, there is plenty of that too, online), but the screen when used properly is a tool that can unfurl a level of creativity and curiosity that is, without question, something most of us could have never imagined having access to. It is a three-dimensional library -- text, images, audio and video -- that gives us access to some of the smartest people and skills in the world. In fact, some of the best apps for young people will help them learn how to ride a bike, speak a different language, understand proper diction and develop a better handwriting style.

Yes, these connected devices can help us future-proof education like nothing we have seen to date.

Apps that facilitate learning, platforms like Khan Academy to better understand myriad concepts taught in school that some teachers struggle to teach and beyond are powerful ways for kids to learn more. It's easy to to get sidelined by a random BuzzFeed piece on Two Photos Of A Bunny Taking Care Of Mini Pigs That Will Instantly Put You In A Better Mood Unless You Don't Have A Soul or a YouTube video of cats chasing laser pointers, but that would be missing the point.

If you were a parent in the '70s or '80s and you allowed your children to watch TV, you were using the TV as a cheap babysitter. The better parents would -- at the very least -- encourage these kids to watch something educational, but most of the programming lacked any sort of true depth and interaction. What we quickly realize is that Klein is right. Tablets and smartphones (or whatever wearable technology these devices of today evolve into for these younger generations) will be their notebooks, pens, communication channel, publishing platform, classroom and more. This doesn't mean that we need kids today with their noses constantly buried into these screens, but it does mean that we all need to do a much better job of understanding that screens are no longer the things we use to waste time and take our collective minds off of our day-to-day lives. These screens have come alive, and a child's ability to understand this, work with them and -- ultimately -- use them to create something is going to be a key indicator of their ability to be successful in life.

The diet answer.

Whether it's a need to lose weight, quit a bad habit or start exercising, everything is about moderation. This includes kids and screens. The challenge is this: what adults do you know that are able to keep the screens at bay? Not for their children, but for themselves. Look around. Restaurants, bars, the middle of meetings, family functions and more. Adults are terrible managers when it comes to their own exposure to screens, so it should come as no surprise that kids -- from a younger and younger age -- have this innate desire to have a screen in front of them. If we are ever to have moderation, it is the adults that need to lead by example. If we are ever to have kids that will benefit from screens, instead of wasting their time on it, it is the adults who will have to do a better job of figuring out ways to turn these devices from a time killer into an idea generator. Technology has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, we need to ensure that we do a better job of showing these young people, the potential and not the waste.

Klein is right: this isn't about how much time kids spend with screens, it's about what's on the screen. So, what's on your screen?

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image - one of North America's largest independent digital marketing agencies. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His latest book, CTRL ALT Delete, is out now.

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