Screen time guidelines

Screen time guidelines: ‘What’ more important than ‘how much’ (Part 2)

In an ideal world, we want our children spending more time creating and communicating with screens, and less time simply using screens to consume media. This is particularly relevant now given the absence of time recommendations in the updated screen-time guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Consuming media is what we’ve traditionally done with young children and screens in the past, where TV and videos were the predominant screen technologies. And the suggestion that children should never consume media is simply unrealistic. The bottom-line is that children enjoy and can even benefit from consuming media. For example, children can learn from watching educational TV programs.

In fact, as adults, many of us love consuming media. Whether it’s our favourite TV show, or checking social media, we love consuming. So much so that our brains get a little hit of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, when we do.

But what we really need to focus on is encouraging children to spend more time creating with technology (for example, making videos, music, animations, digital books) and communicating with technology (for example, chatting to grandparents via Skype or creating voice recordings).

When children create or communicate (as opposed to consume) they’re engaging in higher-order thinking skills. They have to use language, problem solve, evaluate their choices.

In comparison, when they’re consuming technology (for example, watching television), they can often enter the ‘digital zombie state’. It’s that transfixed state where they stare wide-eyed at the screen, completely oblivious to everything happening around them. You could be running around on fire behind them, or offer them ice-cream and they wouldn’t hear you.

So what does it all mean?

We need to encourage our children to spend more time creating and communicating with gadgets. A little bit of consumption is fine (don’t worry you’re not a ‘bad’ parent if your child likes watching TV, or You Tube clips – just keep an eye on anything violent or sexualised). But we need to balance this with opportunities to create digital work and/or communicate with others.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that TV is ‘bad’ and touchscreen devices are ‘good’. The functionality of digital devices is changing. TV can be passive or if it’s well-designed it too can also be interactive and engaging. It can be a stimulus for play. Innovations in children’s interactive TV will radically change the way that young children view TV. For example, using the Kinect gaming system, children can now watch episodes of Sesame Street and interact with the characters on-screen by counting cookies and throwing coconuts.

Like most things in life, it comes down to moderation and creating healthy habits. We need to teach our children how to form healthy relationships with technology. And this involves being able to use technology in intentional ways and for specific periods of time. As we know as adults, technology can easily seep into our lives and take over.

Dr Kristy Goodwin
Dr Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology, learning and development expert and a mum who’s also trying to balance her kids’ screen-time with green-time.

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