Moving Beyond Screen Time

November 20, 2014
By | 2 Comments

kidscreenA couple of weeks ago I was monitoring the twitter feed of a prominent early childhood conference, and was surprised to see a key voice in the community quoted as exclaiming “Screens don’t teach!” For the record, I’m being vague on purpose. Since I only saw the twitter quote and wasn’t actually there, I’m not quite ready to hang her out to dry. But watching it get retweeted and taken up as an educational “position” required me to drink extra tea and practice deep breathing exercises.

Screens are a tangible piece of hardware, whether part of a television, computer, tablet, phone, or handheld game console. They are not content. More often than not, it’s a show or game or app or program that does the heavy hitting as far as transmitting messages and eliciting activity. So it’s absolutely true and non-newsworthy that screens don’t teach. But are screens a part of a larger package that convey information and facilitate different kinds of meaning-making? Absolutely, and this deserves a conversation deeper than quips of misleading twit-bytes.

I think the attempted educational position above was referencing concerns over “screen time.” This term has been wielded as a sword of parenting fear and guilt (and sometimes trendy emulation) since before the American Academy of Pediatrics set forth their 2001 guidelines advising no more than 1-2 hours of screen time per day (which, by the way, has been adapted recently to take a more balanced approach to kids engaging with digital media). To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the content and interactions that may be elicited via digital media. But parents and educators are not hostage to the whims of the media industry. They can approach children’s media use by thoughtfully evaluating the content and contexts for media interaction. Here are a few potentially helpful questions:

  1. What is the media content? What is the child watching, hearing, or being encouraged to do? Is the particular content appropriate for the child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development or temperament? How will the child make sense of what they see or what they do?
  1. What kinds of activity and interaction does the media elicit? Is the child engaging with the media alone? With peers? With older siblings or adults? Is joint media engagement supportive and productive? How do the narrative worlds of the media connect with the child’s play and activity?
  1. What role does this media play in the child’s broader swath of life activities? How does the child spend their time? Is there a balance in the child’s activities, including active play, imaginative play, quiet and social times, etc.?

I have a poster child for this. I use this sweetie as an example in many of my talks on the ways kids actively participate in the narrative worlds that are meaningful to them. There was a time, a number of years back, waaaaaaay before Rovio had marketed it to the high hills, when Angry Birds was just one mobile game. (I feel like I should be sitting in a rocking chair for this tale…) As a little guy, he loved to play Angry Birds on his mom’s phone. One day he ended up drawing a group of the bird characters, and used some ribbon as a tool to help launch them. Intrigued by what was transpiring, his mom let him take the lead. Soon he was building obstacles of couch cushions and furniture to try to knock down with his paper birds, which then prompted some great discussions on basic physics concepts and revising his strategies. His engagement in-game led to active creation and experimentation out-of-game, including joint engagement with a caring adult. His play pushed the boundaries of the Angry Birds narrative world. The activity was elicited by media use, by screen time, but became the catalyst for rich engagement to take place. The media wasn’t something he consumed, but something he did. But his story isn’t unique. It does bring us to a broader view of media engagement, though. And with thoughtful consideration, parents and educators can make informed and critical choices about a child’s media engagement, considering more than just screen time.

In sum, screens don’t teach. Screens don’t entertain. But the content, contexts, and interactions that are elicited via screens can have big impacts on young participants. As a term, “screen time” is incomplete. The affordances of different kinds of media and their related interactions will mean different things to different children. So the next time someone asks you what you think of kids and screen time, I hope you’ll help them think critically about media use in ways that promote a child’s positive and productive meaning-making. We’ve gotta help nip the quips in the bud.

Extra stuff:

There are a number of scholars and specialists who provide volumes to this dialogue. If you’d like to dig in more deeply, here’s a short list of people and organizations that present informed and balanced views of children’s media use. They are listed in no particular order, and this list is not exhaustive.

  • Daniel Anderson, media researcher & originator of the “media diet” perspective.
  • Lisa Guernsey, Director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, and originator of the “Three C’s” (content, context, and the individual child) perspective for thinking about children’s screen time.
  • David Kleeman, Playvangelist at PlayCollective, and all-around smart guy when it comes to children’s media and bridging industry and research.
  • The Joan Ganz Cooney Center – the digital media research arm of Sesame Workshop.
  • The Fred Rogers Center, and specifically their joint position paper with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

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2 Responses to “ Moving Beyond Screen Time ”

  1. Caroline Ferris Leader on November 21, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    Great post, Meagan. It sparked a conversation between Jonathan Gray and myself about perceptions of active v. passive screen time and all of the medical developmental assumptions made about media engagement. It reminds me of David Buckingham’s call to examine child media engagement beyond an isolated mind-screen interaction. We forget that children, like adults, play with and re-write media narratives in their everyday lives. Thanks so much for reminding us of that.

  2. Diana Willis Bottomley on November 22, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    Intriguing post. As an early childhood educator, though, I feel that there may be some context missing here. Statements like “Screens don’t teach!” have been used by early childhood educators to voice their concerns over the efforts by local, state, and federal education administrators to incorporate more technology into daily early childhood curricula, not as blanket anti-technology sentiments. A majority of early childhood educators, including myself, understand the role technology plays in daily life, and that there is a place and time for it. We are, however, increasingly facing pressure to use more and more technology in the classroom and are pushing back against the system, as countless studies show play-based, hands-on learning to be best for early learners. Electronic media has its place within children’s lives, but we do not feel it is necessary to incorporate technology in a three hour school day.

    I think it is fabulous that the mother of the aforementioned child facilitated meaningful play around Angry Birds. Not all children have families that will engage them to think critically about media and with what they are engaging on screens, however. It must be noted, too, that screen use at home and screen use in classrooms are quite different. Apart from some cameras and a CD player, I have a technology-free classroom. That’s at least partly because I know most, if not all, of my students have many opportunities for media engagement at home. With that being said, when one of my students draws a picture based on Minecraft, I bring oral language, written language, social studies, and other educational components to the table. I can take a child’s media engagement and turn it into a educational opportunity, however, my daily curriculum is, and will continue to be, based around a hands-on, play-based approach free of screens and most technology.