The other night, we had pizza and wings for dinner. The night before, my husband and I each ate six, fresh-baked, chocolate chip cookies. Not fresh-baked in that we actually made the dough, but at least all hot and melty because we put the pre-cut dough balls on a cookie sheet and popped them in the oven. Some people may be totally grossed by our apparent lack of nutrition and poor food choices. However, the cookies accompanied a dinner of roasted chicken (which I did bake) and salad. I also walked the dogs for four miles that day and went to the gym. The day before, I took a spin class before work, and we at least ordered a veggie pizza. My husband also worked out. If you are still reading, you may be wondering why I am sharing 48-hours of nutrition and exercise. It’s because the analogy explains my concerns with a series of news stories that I have recently read related to screen time.
First, I would like to use the word story to describe these articles as they all appeared in the Opinion sections of publications. This blog post is also opinion, but you know that because you are reading it on a blog. It becomes less clear when the opinion is published in a major news outlet or on an organization’s web site. Second, these screen time stories reference research – also a term that I am using loosely as many of the cited studies appear to be taken out of their original context and generalized to a place that the original scholars may not have intended. Finally, from the NY Times article about Silicon Valley elites banning screens for their children to the most recent Washington Post story about a new Digital Divide, these stories base their argument on the assumption that parents can afford books, design educational experiences for their children beyond those provided by school, and possess the luxury of time. Much like articles about digital note taking and digital reading that cycle around every so often, this new discussion of screen time has existed before – it’s another Groundhog Day.
However, rather than dissect the contents of the articles, I would like to bring a different source back to the forefront of the discussion: Lisa Guernsey’s book Screen Time: How Electronic Media–From Baby Videos to Educational Software–Affects Your Young Child. She argues that when considering the idea of screen time, we have to consider the Content, the Context, and the Child.
Not all screen time is created equally. Consider this moment right now. My 30-minutes of writing is not the same as 30-minutes of mindlessly scrolling through social media or 30-minutes of watching random dog videos on YouTube. Similarly, a child spending 30-minutes playing a video game with zero educational value is not the same as them collaborating with others to create their own game in Scratch or Bloxels. What students and children are doing with their screens is just as important. Are they using it for collaboration and connection or as a means to avoid a social situation? Does their screen support them as learners or serve as a distraction? Again, this is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes, we all need a distraction – which brings me to Lisa’s point of context.
A friend once called me in a panic to ask if she had done irreparable harm by allowing her then five-year old to watch Curious George for 7+ hours on a transatlantic flight. Normally, he does not have that much screen time, but it kept him quiet and happy. I responded that if she had a quiet five-year-old on a transatlantic flight, then she should be nominated for parent of the year! Given the context, it made sense. More recently, I had dinner with her and her younger child. The four-year old had been to a birthday party, missed her nap, fallen asleep in the car on the way to the restaurant, and now had to sit at a table with strange adults in a loud restaurant. My friend apologized and handed her phone to her child so that she could watch a video while we had a conversation. Anyone with small children knows that this is a survival strategy. The child was adorable, and eventually we shared her chicken fingers (which was way better than what I had ordered) once she was ready to talk to me. However, I’ve read the articles, and I did notice the stares as the child started at a phone at the table. That judgement, though, came without understanding of context. One more, and I think that this is where assuming all contexts are equal can be a dangerous generalization when it comes to ensuring equitable opportunity for ALL students. In light of a recent bill proposed by the Senate to allow e-Rate funding to pay for WiFI hotspots on busses, I have read some responses advocating for children to instead be unplugged. If students have access to WiFi at home, and a support structure to help them with their work, then I can understand this argument. On the other hand, for students who spend hours on the bus each day, do not have reliable Internet at home, and who could benefit from the opportunity of collaboratively learning with peers as well as maybe even their teachers, then WiFi on the bus could be a game-changer for their education.
To bring this argument to a close, before making sweeping statements, we have to remember that we are ultimately talking about individuals. For some children, digital technology is a lifeline; and for others, it could be little more than a distraction. Parents, educators, and other adults can help students and children to understand what they need, when, how, and why. A few weeks ago, I helped to design a reflection workshop for the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools (ATLIS) conference. In discussing the plans with several other educators, one asked if we should tell participants to put their technology away. I understand the intention. We wanted people to be present in the experience and not trying to multitask or distract themselves. On the other hand, if someone asked me to put my technology away in a workshop, I might have left. For me, paper is the enemy. It isn’t mistake tolerant enough. I can’t read my handwriting, and then I lose the notes. Please don’t tell me that I can take pictures of it later. That does not help me in the minute while I am frustrated with the medium. Instead, we decided to encourage people to create an environment that would allow them to reflect and connect with the activities as well as the individuals in the room. I am sure that this article will not end the screen time debate. In fact, I’ve written about it before on Edutopia — twice. However, for those of you who may actually read this and then have to counter some of the tweets, posts, and opinions circulating regarding technology and kids, maybe Lisa’s advice of content, context, and child will help you to form a balanced response.
Author: Beth Holland, EdD