Screen Time: It’s the Quality, Not the Quantity

Student with iPad
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Screen time is a hot topic among parents these days. Many of us are understandably concerned about our kids overusing computers and devices, and the potential dangers involved in doing so.

Furthermore, there has been a lot of discussion recently about the strict limits that some tech-industry parents have placed on their kids’ screen time, from the late Steve Jobs through to former Wired editor Chris Anderson. It makes you wonder: What do these people know that the rest of us don’t?

The official guidelines on kids’ media use from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that entertainment media should be avoided for all kids under two, and limited to between one and two hours per day for older kids. But notice that phrase, “entertainment media”. The implication here is that non-entertainment screen activities that are educational, useful and productive for kids should not necessarily be limited.

Of course, what constitutes “entertainment” media is a grey area. PlayCollective’s David Kleeman highlights examples of quality media use such as reading eBooks, playing with creativity apps and watching good-quality TV and movies — all of which could be described as “entertainment” to some degree.

Personally I feel that, rather than setting strict screen time limits, it’s important to consider what your kid is actually doing on the screen. Allow your child to spend more time on high-quality screen-based activities that are benefitting them. Limit the low-quality screen activities that have no clear benefit, or that may actually be harming your kid.

How do you decide which media use is high quality, and which is low quality? To some extent, I think this depends on you, your child, and your family situation — ultimately it has to be your decision as a parent.

However, the following two lists may help. The first is a list of high-quality screen activities that I think are largely beneficial. The second is a list of low-quality activities that I believe have little or no benefit, or that may actually be causing harm. I’m not suggesting you take these lists as gospel; rather, I hope that these examples may provide a useful starting point for creating your own lists and finding a balance in your household.

High-quality screen time

Here is a list of screen time activities that I feel can be beneficial for kids. There is a wide range of different activities here, but they all have a few things in common: they actively involve kids, rather than relegating them to passive media consumers; they provide opportunities for kids to learn, explore and grow; and they have few or no commercial aspects to them.

  • Kids using their creativity. Kids can build weird and wonderful structures in Minecraft. They can draw pictures on an iPad. They can take photos to document their lives and surroundings. They can make music. They can create time-lapse and stop-motion movies.
Kid painting with iPad

Screen time can let kids explore their creative skills.

  • Kids exploring their interests. Children can learn about dinosaurs, or stars, or birds, or a thousand other topics, through apps, games and websites.
  • Learning while playing games. Kids can learn about space with Kerbal Space Program. They can brush up their maths skills with a range of apps. They can use websites and mobile games to learn a new language. Puzzle games and strategy games can also teach kids planning, numeracy and problem-solving skills.
Apps like DragonBox Elements can help your kid learn about maths and geometry.

Games like DragonBox Elements can help your kid learn about maths and geometry.

  • Communicating using technology. Children and teens can connect with friends via social media, or they can chat and socialise using messaging apps. They can use Skype video chats to stay in touch with friends and relatives.
  • Playing together using multiplayer games. Video games with multiplayer elements can be a great way for kids to make friends and strengthen relationships. Family-friendly Minecraft servers provide a safe environment for kids to play with others all over the world. Kids can play chess or Scrabble online with other players. App versions of high-quality board games such as Carcassonne provide hours of entertainment and social play for the whole family.
  • Using apps and games to keep fit and active. There’s a huge number of games for the Xbox’s Kinect controller that kids can play by waving, moving and jumping around the living room. The Nintendo Wii console also has many fitness games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit. Then there are apps and games to help with a wide range of outdoor pursuits, from geocaching through to bird spotting, running and cycling.
National Geographic's Birds field guide app can help your kid spot birds when they're out and about.

National Geographic’s Birds field guide app can help your kid spot birds when they’re out and about.

  • Watching suitable TV shows. There are some fantastic, age-appropriate television shows that both educate and entertain kids, and encourage kids to think. It’s also good to watch quality TV with your kids so that you can reinforce good viewing habits and provide guidance.
  • Reading eBooks and book apps. There’s a big range of high-quality eBooks and picture book apps for kids. There are fiction books to fire kids’ imaginations, as well as nonfiction books that can inspire, educate and inform children.

Hopefully this list has shown that there can be many benefits to using screens wisely. Perhaps it has also given you some ideas for new productive screen-based activities that you can try with your kids!

Low-quality screen time

Now that we’ve seen some screen time activities that can be beneficial for kids, let’s focus on some less fruitful uses of devices and screens. These range from activities that are definitely a bad idea — such as watching adult movies — through to stuff that is, at best, probably not doing your kid any favours.

  • Random YouTube viewing. While there is some great stuff on YouTube, there is some awful stuff too. It’s probably not a good plan to let your kid endlessly surf YouTube, especially if there isn’t a parent in the room to keep an eye on what they’re watching. My recent article on kid-safe iPads and iPhones includes tips for safer YouTube viewing.
  • Trashy Let’s Play videos. Many gamers create popular Let’s Play videos that can be a great source of information and entertainment for kids that are fans of the game in question. Some of these videos are of excellent quality. However, many of them range from being simply badly produced or mind-numbingly boring, through to completely inappropriate (with lots of swearing or sexual content). If your kid is a fan of Minecraft, check out my roundup of child-appropriate Minecraft channels on YouTube.
Some Let's Play videos contain stuff you probably don't want your kid seeing (or hearing).

Some Let’s Play videos contain stuff you probably don’t want your kid seeing (or hearing).

  • Watching adverts. Most ads are designed with one purpose in mind: to persuade you to consume a product or service. While using screens, your kids can easily be exposed to advertising targeted at both children and adults. Unless you want your kid to turn into a little consumer, it’s probably best to limit their ad viewing if at all possible. Tools like Weblock can block ads on mobile devices, while browser add-ons such as Adblock Plus will keep your desktop browsing experience ad-free.
  • Playing games that encourage in-app purchases. An in-app purchase is a feature that allows you to buy extra functionality, content or virtual currency from within an app. Many games nag the player to spend real money on virtual coins using in-app purchases. This results in your kid nagging you to buy the coins for them! It also arguably promotes a consumerist attitude, where every little thing must be paid for. You might want to avoid such games for your kids, but you can also disable in-app purchases — find out how to do this on an iPad or iPhone in this article.
  • Consuming media that is not age-appropriate. It goes without saying that your kid should not be watching TV shows or movies, or playing games, that contain adult content such as sex and violence. Back when all we had was live TV, this was easy to enforce, since adult shows were usually broadcast after kids’ bedtimes. These days, however, it’s much easier for your kid to stumble upon adult content, from sexual content on YouTube through to gory adverts in video games. A good rule to use here is “no screens in the bedroom”: insist that your kid uses devices in the living room, where you can keep an eye on things.
  • Screens before bedtime. This is a definite no-no if you want your child to get a decent night’s sleep. The backlights in computer displays and portable devices inhibit production of melatonin, which can cause sleep problems.

I think this list covers a lot of what can go wrong with screen time. There is no doubt that electronic media has potential dangers for kids. However, with some good parenting, these dangers can be mitigated or avoided.

All screen time is not the same

Of course it is possible for kids — and, for that matter, adults — to overdo screen time. Too much time spent sitting in front of a screen — or reading a book, for that matter — means not enough time for exercise, chores, social activities, contemplation, sunshine, or simply being bored. Lots of computer use can affect your posture and cause a variety of ailments. There is some evidence that video games are addictive (although the extent of such addiction is debated). And there are inherent risks with kids using social networking sites and apps.

What’s more, it is all too easy to use a device as a babysitter, entertaining your kids while you get on with work or jobs around the house. This can result in your kids getting a lot more screen time than they otherwise would.

However, as I’ve shown in this article, all screen time is not created equal. It depends an awful lot on what you’re actually doing on the screen. There’s a big difference between studying maths on an iPad, and watching ads on an iPad.

I hope you’ve found this article useful. For more hints and tips on helping your kids use media responsibly, you might like to read my previous article on screen time.

How do you feel about screen time for your kids? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

[Image credit: student_ipad_school – 143 by Brad Flickinger (CC BY), cropped]

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