This week Good Morning America featured a campaign called “Wait Until 8th.” In short, this grassroots campaign wants to convince parents to wait until their kids are in 8th grade before getting them a smartphone. Personally, I think I’d tend to agree. We did that with our kids (we used age 13 as the threshold in our family). I absolutely agree that parents need to be cognizant of screen time limits, and I think this campaign provides an easy-to-remember guideline about kids’ use of smartphones. But I also see the research showing that our kids are going to be exposed to things, no matter how protective we are. As media experts Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross (from the London School of Economics) point out, not all experts agree that digital media are “always harmful and need to be restricted, or that allowing children screen time makes someone a ‘bad parent’.” In fact, based on their research and the research of dozens of others, Livingstone and Blum-Ross recently created an infographic to help guide parents through this process of decision-making about screen time for their kids. The infographic and the original article appear here, but I include the text below with permission because I think what they have to say takes a rational, non-scary approach to what research says about screen time for kids.
From digital homework platforms to extended video chats with friends, from remote working to family WhatsApp groups, there are infinite ways that digital media are becoming integrated into both children’s and parents’ lives. Despite parents reporting how they benefit in their personal, professional and parenting lives from digital media, it is remarkable that so many in this generation of parents are still anxiously watching the ‘screen time’ clock.
‘Screen time’ is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in and of itself, but is rather a shorthand (though fairly out-dated) way of talking about millions of different ways of being, interacting, creating and learning with and through screen-based technologies.
To help move the conversation forward, we worked with the Connected Learning Alliance to produce a new downloadable infographic to spur parents to consider the root of their screen time fears. The idea is to help parents ask questions about what they and their children gain (and lose) from the different ways they engage with digital media, to help them strike the right balance for their own families. Lots of parents like the idea of 21st century skills and some even actively encourage their kids to learn to code or to learn skills and spend time with peers through popular games like Minecraft. But, many are stuck on thorny questions about whether what their children are doing, watching and engaging with online is safe, productive, educational or even kind.
The infographic aims to:
- Support parents to recognize what their children might be learning and why they might be choosing to connect and create using digital media.
- Help parents differentiate between more-or-less ‘normal’ versus worrisome use (we include some practical questions to help guide this discussion).
- Signpost practical resources for parents to find out further information both about positive uses of digital media, and realistic approaches to keeping kids safe.
The point isn’t for us to tell parents what counts as ‘quality’ for their child(ren), but to encourage and empower them to move past a knee-jerk reaction and make an informed opinion. With this in mind, we emphasize that:
- Experts do not ‘all agree’ that digital media are always harmful and need to be restricted, or that allowing children screen time makes someone a ‘bad parent’.
- In fact, research shows that when parents restrict their children’s internet use, they are exposed to fewer risks, but also miss out on opportunities, too.
- Parents who are open to improving their own digital skills, not allowing themselves to be scared-off by technology, are better able to support their children when they do (inevitably) run into some form of trouble.
- Parents can pursue opportunities to talk and share with their kids about what they are doing, learning or struggling with, rather than simply telling them to ‘turn it off’.
Screen time is not created equal, but varies enormously by the context of how it is used, the content that is engaged, and the connections it fosters (or fails to). Helping parents keep sight of this, and helping them balance between their hopes and their fears, is what really matters.