Reams have been written on the negatives of children having screen time. So we decided to look at the positive side. Find out how you could turn your child’s screen time into an educational experience
By Aarthi Prabhakaran
A few months ago, my younger one had a little trouble adapting to the changing weather conditions. Our doctor reassured us that the symptoms were mere reactions to allergens prevalent around us. My son was advised to stay away from dirt and sand, and if he did play outdoors, to wash his hands and feet once he got home. We came back from the doctor’s and off he goes, “My body is fighting the alien germs with the help of T-cells.” He is just 7 years old! I asked him how he knew about T-cells and his answer was, “I saw how Arnold’s body fought his cold virus with the help of T-cells. They make our body strong. For me to have healthy T-cells, I need to eat more fruits and vegetables.”My older one, who is 12, came home from school the other day and excitedly said, “In today’s Geography class, we were learning about the different kinds of rocks (igneous, sedimentary etc.). When my teacher finished explaining the topic, she asked us if we’d all understood. When I answered yes, the whole class was astonished. Do you know how I understood it and can recollect it so well? I remember it from the characters in “Rock Cycle” episode, where Weatherman and Captain Rock-Man fight it out through various stages of rock formation. I just need to make sure that I don’t mention Weatherman and Rock-Man when I write my exam!”
For the uninitiated, what my children were referring to was ‘Magic School Bus’– a Netflix animated series that makes learning fun. Every episode focuses on some science concept. The extra spice is having a bus – the main character that can magically change forms – practically explain the concepts to the children, through experiential learning.
This is an example of how screen time is positively impacting the learning process in both my children. As modern-day parents, my husband and I are both tech savvy and use technology for our everyday activities. Grocery lists and household chore lists are managed on Cloud-hosted apps, shared and are accessible anywhere by either of us. So why should we keep our children completely away from the screen?!
Screen Time Considerations
Screen Time is defined as the viewing or use of anything with a screen, including TVs, DVDs, video games and computers. The harmful effects of exposure to screens have been well-documented. Early screen exposure is associated with attentional problems at age 7. Prolonged screen exposure has been found to adversely affect cognitive development, reading recognition and comprehension, mathematical proficiency, and short-term memory as well as language development and vocabulary. However, it is true that we cannot avoid screens in our lives today. The reality is that children will have to live with and adapt to technology. Our job as parents is to coach our children to use technology wisely. Setting limits is the right approach. However, it is not only about limiting the time spent in front of the screen but also about what children can and cannot watch. Thus, quality over quantity is an important consideration when it comes to screen time. In this vein, the concept of ‘digital nutrition’ becomes important. It likens media diets to what’s on our plates – rather than counting calories (or screen time), think about what you’re eating (or watching).
Preparing your child for a Digital Future
Our children will grow up in a world predominantly run by machines and complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems that are capable of mimicking human interaction. Technology today has entered our homes, classrooms and workplaces and woven itself into the very fabric of our lives. Alexa, Siri and Google Home now manage end-to-end functioning of a household. Smartboards are being used as a support tool in classroom teaching. We use social media and communication tools to connect and communicate with family, friends and teachers. So, if we completely ban screens and devices, we are preventing our children from learning the crucial skills of navigating their way through the online world and making smart decisions vis-à-vis technology.
Premalatha Varadhan, head of AI in a leading UK-based banking consultancy and a mother of a middle-schooler, asserts: “It is irrational to completely ban or even ration screen time for children in this age of digitisation and AI. As parents, it is our first responsibility to enable our children to tap into the abundant digital resources for their self-initiated learning and development, ensuring that the aspects of online-safety are also simultaneously imparted.”
While an overwhelming majority of research has focused on the harmful effects of screens on children, research in the last 5-7 years has started documenting a more balanced perspective. This body of research makes a distinction between active versus passive screen time (e.g., research by Sweetser and colleagues, 2012). Active screen time means the child is cognitively or physically engaged in screen-based activities – playing a video game or doing his homework on a computer. Passive Screen Time, on the other hand, involves sedentary screen-based activities and/or passively receiving screen-based information, such as watching television, a DVD or simply a video on a mobile device.
Benefits of cognitively active screen time: Computer use during the preschool years is associated with improvements in school readiness and cognitive development (Li & Atkins, 2004) and higher levels of attention and motivation (McCarrick & Li, 2007), while the instant feedback scaffolds children’s interactions. Research has also found that computers facilitate social interaction and provide an environment for young children to use large amounts of language and improve word knowledge and verbal fluency.
Benefits of physically active screen time: Research published by American Psychologist in 2013 has demonstrated that video games can offer benefits that are cognitive (e.g., spatial and problem-solving skills and creativity), motivational (e.g., persistence and effortful engagement), emotional (e.g., the experience of flow) and social (e.g., prosocial skills).
Educational benefits: Screens can open up a plethora of educational benefits for children by offering online educational resources. Even the much-maligned television has its positives. A study led by Anderson (2012) concluded that educational television is an important asset for children’s informal learning during the preschool years and beyond. “Watching and understanding television requires the development of attention, media decoding and narrative comprehension skills. Beyond the infant and toddler years, television can become a powerful tool for education. Programmes designed with speciﬁc educational objectives and research-based curricula promote academic achievement and prosocial behaviour,” observed the study.
According to Varadarajan Sridharan, head of technology, Nettur Technical Training Foundation (NTTF), Bengaluru, “Digital learning will progressively over-ride the traditional method of education that we all were used to. The education system, associated pedagogies, and the learning models have to be revisited and adopted to meet the new age digitalisation.”
Like traditional learning, it is important to customise screen-based learning to suit the pace of the learner.. Children should be exposed to age-appropriate digital assets so that they become familiar with the basics and etiquette of using them. This is similar to teaching social/public etiquette to a child and is essential as technology is going to dominate their adult world.
However, it is also important to remember that all screen time is not the same. A screen that has age-appropriate, educational, goal-oriented content is more likely to be beneficial than a show that models aggressive and violent behaviour. Thus, sitting and watching television for two hours is not the same as playing a learn-to-read game on a tablet, which is not the same as killing zombies on a computer or game console.
Use screens in a way that promote interaction, connection and creativity. As far as possible, try:
Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
Pre-teens and teens
To conclude, only black-painting screen-time does a huge disservice to the learning opportunities carefully selected screen content can offer. By regulating and monitoring screen time and choosing quality over quantity, parents can help their children make the most of screens as a powerful educational and learning asset.
About the author:
Written by Aarthi Prabhakaran on 1 August 2019.
Aarthi is a freelance writer and integrative counsellor, with a decade of volunteering experience across US, UK, and France. Her passion is to create social impact by instilling mindfulness in the younger generation.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 August 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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