Watching this TEDTalk this afternoon was the catalyst for this post about screen time. (One of the things I appreciated about this TEDTalk is that it distinguishes between the effects of entertainment screen time vs. educational screen time. I wish there was also more research on the effect of interactive (iPhone/iPad) screen time vs passive screen time (TV). Mostly it seems to focus on TV.) Anyways, I know this isn’t the usual kind of post you see about screen time, but I wanted to talk about the ways in which I think screen time is awesome. For me, it’s all about quality and balance. We have a few basic boundaries (something along the lines of ‘You need to stop playing iPhone now because Mummy wants to check Facebook…’ and ‘I WILL NOT listen to the Paw Patrol theme one more time today.’) but mostly, it’s not about time limits or guilt, but about a rich and varied experience. So without further ado, eight things I love about screen time:
1) Screen time is unjudgemental learning.
I’m sure not every child is this way, but I have a kid who is very reluctant to try and fail in front of people. He doesn’t like guessing, he likes knowing; he resists situations where he feels he might not be able to perform or answer like he thinks he’s should. And while we’re working on this, both on addressing his fear of failing, and addressing the way we approach tasks to reduce the pressure on him, one of the great beauties of the screen is that he can learn without performing for anyone.
With a good educational app or TV show, there is no fear of judgement. Nobody’s watching over your shoulder. Getting it wrong is ok. So when Scout Kid is using a educational app, he’s not afraid to try, because he’s not afraid to fail. He’s much more willing to experiment, try, and test.
2) Screen time exposes kids to subjects and experiences they can’t learn in real life.
Whether it’s inside the human body, halfway round the world, in outer space, the distant past, or the microscopic world, screen time takes my kids to places they can’t go on their own. We love watching How It’s Made or BBC Planet Earth over lunch, and most of Scout Kid’s favourite shows work in great exposure to the kind of things he doesn’t meet in the everyday, from the wide range of STEM subjects in Curious George, to the prehistoric world of the dinosaurs, to the wild variety in the animal kingdom, to awesome heavy machinery and vehicles. We also love YouTube videos, especially for homeschooling– it’s a lot easier to get a handle on cloud formation, or light refraction, or what a ship in a bottle is, when you see it in action, versus just seeing a picture or hearing a description.
This exposure lets my kids make more connections and understand their world better; one of the things I love about when kids learn something early is that they’re ready to learn the next level that much more quickly.
3) Screen time exposes kids to people they wouldn’t meet in real life.
In the same way that screen time exposes kids to subjects they wouldn’t get to experience otherwise, it gives them the opportunity to experience a broader, richer range of cultures, ideas, and personal experiences. Research has show that this can contribute to more empathy and positivity, and less fear and prejudice, towards those different from your family. Living and going to a church in the country, my kids aren’t exposed to the kind of cultural variety they might get in the city– although our town is growing more diverse by leaps and bounds; when I was a kid, the town was basically a 50-50 split of Dutch and Portuguese people, and the Dutch crowd hung out with the Dutch crowd, you know? I make an effort to buy race- and gender-diverse books, to speak inclusively, etc., but I know it’s easy to fall into white/male default even when you’re trying not to. TV shows (carefully chosen to avoid shallow or stereotypical portrayals) and YouTube videos can help normalise other perspectives and points of view, and I think that’s grand.
Instagram’s another great one for this. I make a point of following POC, and women doing non-stereotypical stuff, like welding and skateboarding, so that the boys are just used to seeing those images as part of the morning post-breastfeeding Instagram browse. (If you’re looking for some account suggestions, or have some, hit me up in the comments!)
4) Screen time gives kids the power to connect on their own terms.
This is mainly a phone thing, I guess, although computers too, but I love seeing my kids text and Facetime family members. Scout Kid uses voice-to-text to send (admittedly garbled) messages to faraway grandparents or sends his favourite emojis to Daddy at work. Feral Kid loves to send videos of himself to people and get a video response. He talks to the video responses like they’re Facetime, which is adorable. Scout Kid even knows how to find people’s names in Contacts and phone them up, although I try to discourage that. One of the common criticisms of a screen-based culture is that it makes kids less social, but I think it can help as much as hurt. Through the above-mentioned channels, my kids learn phone manners, initiate social interactions, and enjoy jokes, express love, and connect across distances without needing me to prompt or manage them.
5) Screen time lets kids experiment with art.
Two things I’m thinking of specifically here, is the art of capturing and enjoying images, and of music. Scout Kid, like many toddlers, is a master selfie-taker, but he also enjoys photographing increasingly-less-blurry images of our house, his family, and weird close-up still lifes. He likes editing and filtering them, and favours black-and-white shots. Both boys love Instagram, which a Facebook friend once described as “a picture book created by the whole world that never ends.” Like, heck yeah they like that, and it’s a whole other ball-game than a frenetic, keep-that-kid-quiet TV show, so why lump them in together?
Scout Kid is also growing into a fine DJ, and has definite tastes. His current favourites are all what he describes as ‘beating songs’, a genre which encompasses hip-hop, dubstep, and good solid rock songs. I love hearing him sing beautiful, complex lyrics, instead of just typical nursery-rhyme toddler fare, and I love the questions he asks about the meanings of songs, and I love his little air drums when a favourite tunes comes up on shuffle. I’d actually love to make a mix-tape of his favourites some time; everyone wants to have Eye of the Tiger, Shut Up And Dance, Needtobreathe’s Brother, Trepak from the Nutcracker, Showbread’s Pachycephalosaurus, and Test Flight from How to Train Your Dragon on the same mix-tape, right?
6) Screen time powers imagination.
Narrative is where we experiment with dreams, examine values, and forge cultural values. As a writer, I love this and embrace it wherever I see it. In our culture, our myths and legends are on the big screen, not a story around a fire. Although there’s beauty in stories around the fire that I don’t want to diminish, I don’t want to let a ‘things were better in the good old days’ attitude poison our experience of the truly great, hilarious, beautiful, or challenging narratives that nowadays come mostly from movies.
Visual imagination employed in reading is awesome, and we love to read here at the Parsonage. But the whole other immersive, visual world of movies, for my kids at least, seems to fire imaginations just as much. The boys have spent solid hours pretending to fly around the room to the How To Train Your Dragon soundtrack, their dreams caught on the spark of beautiful freedom in shots of soaring and sweeping dragons. Scout Kid plays Survivorman in deep, involved ways, using all his toys and books and blankets to build elaborate shelters and animal traps, hunting and building fires and collecting the rainwater from moss with concentration and fervour. It’s no fun to clean up after, but that’s not really the point. The point is, if you’re choosing good quality narratives, whether they’re on a screen or a printed page or a verbal story, they’re going to power imaginations, and as long as you’re keeping the variety and balance between the different types, movies can be just as powerful and play-inspiring as books.
(I also give the boys room time every day, because I think involved, alone play is a skill to be cultivated, and I think that helps…)
7) Screen time provides concrete manipulatives and chances to build on or problem solve.
Montessori math manipulatives are awesome. And so expensive. You know what I like? Apps that have Montessori math manipulatives for $3. Apps that teach patterning and give instant feedback, allowing Scout Kid to shift and experiment with arrangements. Movies that use music, visual feedback, and story to teach all the phonics sounds in two days, instead of weeks and weeks of phonics flashcards. Apps that teach coding through play. The chance to get hands-on with abstract concepts that are hard to make concrete in the real world.
8) Screen time saves parental sanity.
Look, I get the fear and guilt. It’s easy to lean on screen time when you don’t have the energy or the patience, and that’s not always healthy. Sometimes we need to develop our own patience and our kids’ patience. Sometimes we need to invest more in face-to-face time instead of easy solutions. Sometimes we need to let kids be bored so they get creative about keeping busy.
But sometimes screen time is a great compromise. Sometimes your three-year-old stayed up late every night of the weekend, but it’s four o’clock and you can’t put him to bed yet so you use a movie to give him downtime and keep him away from situations where his immature emotions plus exhaustion are just going to keep creating friction. Sometimes you and your partner need to invest in each other and Curious George makes a good babysitter for an hour on Sunday morning. Sometimes convenience is good, if there’s other things that you also need to invest in– other people, yourself, your partner, one kid who’s particularly needy right now, your relationship with God. If my three-year-old watches a movie sometimes and sees me reading the Bible or helping a friend or putting energy into a special project, than I’m happy.
Balance. You know?