Screen Time Means More than Just the Minutes

by Leticia Barr- April 8, 2013 • 2:25 pm

Five years ago I started blogging to share my mixed feelings about our four-year-old daughter’s inheriting her grandmother’s iMac. I worried about where to put it, what we should allow her to play on it and how to limit her screen time. Now that little girl is nine, and my view of technology’s place in her life has grown, too. I was reminded of this when I read Sherry’s Safely Spotlight post about “the good old days,” because my thoughts are much more nuanced than they used to be, and with good reason: technology’s become more nuanced, too.

The number of games and apps out there has gone through the roof in the last five years, especially the amount of educational content. So it’s become more difficult to distinguish between time-wasters and real learning opportunities. But it’s worth figuring out which is which, because technological tools aren’t always a good way for a child to learn, according to Sylvia Martinez, President of educational non-profit Generation YES. She warns, “Sure, it’s easy to get excited when we find tools that make things easier, but we have to be careful about what’s getting automated … ‘push-button’ tools can deprive children of creative experiences.”

At the same time, the best on-screen learning opportunities are more than traditional lessons plus digital bells and whistles. Platforms like Wii, Kinect and PlayStation Move actually give kids experiences they can’t have without technology. And gaming can actually improve visual spatial skills, helps kids problem-solve through various perspectives and teach them to tune out distractions, according to Dr. Paul Howard-Jones (University of Bristol), who shared his findings in a presentation, “The Internet and the Brain,” at the Family Online Safety Institute’s Annual Conference in November 2011.

Online worlds can also be wonderful teachers, as they let kids practice being digital citizens. Mother, clinical social worker and author Devra Renner, of Parentopia, says that while it may sound crazy, Club Penguin “provides an opportunity for kids to learn about engaging with people on the internet appropriately.” While some parents may be scared off by the fact that this is a massive multiplayer online game (MMO), Renner says she let her boys use the “controlled” responses at first, then eased up on parental controls once they demonstrated a better understanding of online safety—the “training wheels” approach.

I’ve also realized to give my daughter some credit. What she’s naturally drawn to are not always just the “time-waster” games. For instance, the most-talked-about game among the families at my children’s elementary school is Minecraft. According to Jacob Cordeiro, the 16-year-old author of the newly released Minecraft for Dummies, this educational game is appropriate for all ages because it provides an “outlet for creative world-building, teaches resource management, fundamental economics, theoretical survival skills, and even programming.” Cordeiro says he’s used the game as a building tool for solving math problems and has practiced circuitry and logic by employing the “redstone” power system. “Looking back, Minecraft has been a major catalyst for most of my creativity, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

My daughter and her younger brother enjoy playing Stack the States and My Robot Friend, which reinforce geography, math, engineering and beginning computer programming. They love the PBS Kids Go site for watching twenty-minute Fetch episodes. In this case, I have to admit that, even though watching is “passive,” I have a hard time saying no to a show like “Fetch,” which teaches kids that tackling problems, overcoming fears and collaborating can be learned and that these skills take time to develop.

So does it even make sense, given all this, to think about our kids’ screen experiences in terms of time, any longer? For more and more parents, what kids are doing during that time is more meaningful than number of minutes or hours. Mary Heston, a parent who also happens to work with says she’s “definitely less stringent about screen time when it comes to educational apps.” Her daughter’s phone is loaded with math apps and Heston exclaims that “she is awesome at math now.”

Stacey Nerdin, from, believes that Stack the States has been instrumental in her five-year-old’s learning all the state names and where to find them on a map. “His excitement about the game led to him asking for puzzles and books of the United States, and he’s now learning capitals and landmarks.” Nerdin has also supplemented her son’s learning by purchasing a wall map of the world that goes on above their computer that corresponds to the Stack the Countries app. Admits Nerdin, “Yes, I loosen some restrictions when he’s paying something more educational.”

Ian Barner, a stay-at-home dad with a two-year-old daughter, says he generally tries to limit his daughter’s screen time to Sesame Street and 49ers games (priorities!), but took an old iPhone 3 and set it up for her to connect to WiFi so she can use the PBS Kids App. “It’s clear she’s learning from the shows on there. She even comes to me and tells me about what she’s watched and how she wants to do those things.”

While Heston, Nerdin, and Barner have become more relaxed when it comes to onscreen educational content, they do remember that a lot of what’s out there, like Angry Birds, is just candy. This doesn’t mean kids should never have it, but parents feel they need to be more mindful of how many of those minutes tick by. San Francisco Bay Area parent Gina Von Esmarch says she “allows ‘sugar’ game time, but I make sure they get book-reading time, too. I try to keep gaming to a limit during the week and am a bit more flexible on the weekends.”

It’s clear that parents today need to constantly reevaluate their view of technology’s place in their kids’ lives. After all, even if kids are learning while they’re in front of a screen, screen time is still time they’re not outdoors, having face-to-face relationships or doing other things that require physical skills and experiences.

How do you view screen time? Do you think differently about game-play if the content is educational or particularly innovative? Do you buy the research that says gaming can be good for kids? Where do you draw the line? And why? We’d love to know what the Safely community thinks. After all, we’re all in this together.

“Blue Glow” photo courtesy Jim Sneddon

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