Digital Decode: Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO of SypherCoders, describes the four types of screen time and each of their pros and cons.
As parents, we are bombarded with “good advice”: Don’t let your kids eat this, eat more of that, spend quality time with them, make sure they run a mile a day… One recurrent piece of advice is about screen time – and generally we’re told it shouldn’t be very long each day. But what exactly do we mean by screen time? It’s useful to identify the four different types, and whether they have a generally positive or potentially negative effect on our children…
1. Creative screen time
The most positive of screen times. This is about making music, creating digital art or editing videos. It can be a collaborative act or hinge on a single creator, but it is developing genuine skills and crafting something that has the potential to be shared or performed. The substance of what is made is important; the quality of the software and learning the skills to use it help the enjoyment. This is an almost limitless area for learning – and will become significantly more relevant to future generations.
2. Communicative screen time
A really important one. The use of email has almost wiped out letter-writing, but it is often poorly used and underestimated. Etiquette, grammar and structure are no less relevant in emails – and practise can help to prevent misunderstandings. FaceTime and Skype have been great for keeping in touch with grandmas and family members. The visual link gives a stronger sense of being in the presence of someone else. Other apps such as WhatsApp and SnapChat allow kids to keep in touch and compare notes (sometimes “What are you wearing this weekend?” but also, more usefully, “What is our history homework?”).
3. Active screen time
Best summed up as gaming and searching. Games cover a wide range of subjects, styles, age-appropriateness and effects. Violent games are always negative for kids. Some games, however, offer real benefits, such as increasing hand-eye coordination, developing logic or encouraging kids to actually get physical (see Wii Tennis). Searching can be useful for homework or for “social grazing”, on Instagram for instance. Viewing a constant stream of Instagram posts with the associated FOMO (fear of missing out) can absorb teenagers for a surprising amount of time.
4. Passive screen time
This is watching TV – something we have come to accept as a background activity and relaxing for adults. But good television can be highly influential, beneficial and worth seeking out and watching together – see Blue Planet, Shakespeare, Horrible Histories, Bake Off or Springwatch. Some programmes have little benefit to kids and they’d be better off kicking a ball around. Some educational programmes have positive stimulation – but the TV should never be used as a babysitter or pacifier.
– Building modern skills
Digital skills are essential for pretty much all future careers – learning the skills of communication and coding now will equip kids to succeed in an as yet unpredictable future.
– Digital citizenship
Being fluent in media and communication skills enables our children to be engaged members of the community.
Learning and creativity are benefits of the right sort of digital activity – and can be found in all sorts
of different measures in all four types of screen time.
– Finding a like-minded group
Finding friends who have the same outlook on life or similar interests can make young people feel less alone.
– Behavioural issues
Too much screen time – or the wrong kind – can often lead to problems with attention and concentration in children.
– Childhood obesity
It’s a time-bomb and well reported – using screens too frequently can deter kids from getting out and getting active.
– Anti-social behaviour
There are incidents of bullying online – this can occur both in active screen time, for instance online games, and in communicative screen time, where kids can suffer from negative, harmful and upsetting comments.
It has been reported that children can feel a sense of isolation or low self-confidence when they see “everyone else having fun” – as mature adults we may be able to be cycnical about Instagram posts, but it’s very hard for young minds to process this in a balanced way.
What can parents do?
Be a parent in the digital world just the way you are in the real world. Help your kids to navigate digital media, talk, listen and share experiences; let them be part of your screen time and vice versa. For example: ask them about their games; ask to learn how to play; create something together; use your screen time to find a recipe or instructions for a craft project and make it together; FaceTime granny as a family; have a movie night so that you share and discuss even in “passive” mode; talk about technology and screens you see when you’re out and about together.
Most importantly, lead by example. Set up boundaries that apply to you and the children, have digital-free times, or digital-free areas, set curfews for phone and screen usage, put all your phones in a basket for “off-grid hour”. The best way for children to learn is from your example.
But don’t over-limit. Okay, this may sound crazy but we do need to get real about screen time and what it means. At school, kids may be on their iPads doing really constructive, creative work. There may be useful research they need to do for homework or to pursue a hobby, and there is no real limit to the amount of screen time for our types 1 and 2 – Creative and Communicative – within the capacity to avoid eye-strain and with the caveat that time is used responsibly and monitored. If we over-limit screen time, kids may be unprepared for education, where exams are likely to be on computers. Touch typing is a valuable asset and navigating the digital world is a positive benefit.
Just be aware of what your child is doing on a screen, and be hyper-sensitive to the moods and behaviour post-screen time. Ensure you are being realistic in the context of the modern world, and discount productive, useful screen time from their daily limit. Your mantra for screen time might become: Measured, Monitored, Meaningful.