The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: Kids and Screen Time

Ingrid Simone essays

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Summer break is here for millions of kids. Getting outside and playing is definitely a priority, which some see as a time to completely unplug. No one thinks kids should spend their entire summer with screens, but before parents pry smartphones, TV remotes and tablets from kids’ hands, consider this: does unplugging from the digital world actually benefit children?

According to a 2014 Zero to Three study, “research shows that when parents and other trusted adults make screen use an interactive, shared experience, it can become a tool for learning, and the potential negative effects can be reduced.”

Rather than concentrating on broad screen usage, the focus should be placed on what’s on the screen, and the activity being carried out.

The Good

When used appropriately, screens with high-quality content can be good for kids. Kids can play, explore, delight, discover and learn — both academic subjects and 21st-century skills like collaboration, creativity and, yes, even social skills.

The study advised parents to be selective with content and to “choose programs and apps with interactive components that engage your child’s participation, that use strong story lines, and that model positive interactions between characters.”

Even relatively passive experiences can fall under “The Good.” Watching videos on sites like BrainPop can actually spark a kids’ interest in foreign topics that they then actively delve into, both online and offline.

The Bad

There’s a plethora of low-quality screen-based content out there for kids, including apps with deceptive advertising and mature subject matter. Like many activities, research, open communication and monitoring can help curb these negative aspects, keeping kids safe and protected.

The campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), the organization behind the annual Screen-Free Week exercise, argues that screens displace “all sorts of other activities that are integral to childhood.”

When screens replace analog play, it is problematic, but the real issue boils down to imbalance. Real-world and digital play aren’t mutually exclusive. Maintaining a balance between all types of play is the most effective, healthiest strategy.

Another drawback of screens is their potential to interfere with face-to-face interactions, with devices at the dinner table serving as a prime example. Screens can have an impact on real-world interaction, but so can any number of non-digital distractions.  

The Beautiful

“One of the purposes of Screen-Free Week is to leave behind judgments about the quality of programming and focus instead on creating, discovering, building, participating, and doing,” reads the CCFC website.

But quality does matter and it isn’t something to be brushed aside.

This fundamental misconception stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being done. Well-meaning organizations have made blanket recommendations, calling for an end to screen time for kids, but these recommendations are based on obsolete studies, conducted prior to the iPad and other interactive devices.

In May 2014, Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, co-author of the 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines on Infants and Media, spoke out about the guidelines, arguing the “judicious use of interactive media is acceptable for children younger than the age of 2 years.”

Creating, discovering, building, participating and doing are all important — but to assume these can’t be done on a screen is misguided.  Screens not only can be a part of all of those things, they can actually facilitate them, and in many cases, make them better.

Watching a child discover the endless capabilities on-screen allows creativity to explode, and is nothing short of amazing. Children can gather information and inspiration from apps and sites such as Instructables, Pinterest and YouTube. These resources can spark projects like writing an eBook, making jewelry, filming a movie, taking photographs or creating types of visual art, both online and offline.

Any parent who has watched her kid build in Minecraft understands that screens can offer kids an outlet for creating, discovering, building, participating and doing that can translate into the non-digital world. With Minecraft, kids are able to problem solve, collaborate, persevere and exercise just about every creative muscle they have. And even off screen, kids research, explain, build and imagine — all stemming from this screen-based experience.  

Is it smart to park kids in front of a screen all day? No. But removing screens for the sake of “unplugging” is an ineffective approach, and one that does not accurately address and acknowledge the value and opportunities presented on screens.

So, instead of focusing on screens, let’s direct our attention to what’s actually on the screens, how they’re being used and how we engage with our kids, online and offline.


About the Author

Ingrid Simone

Ingrid is executive editor of Toca Boca's , bringing a passion for providing quality content focused on kids, family, learning and a love of most things digital. She provides relevant and relatable content for families on the topics of play, technology and the kids’ perspective — and as the mom of two tweens who have been using the iPhone since the day it launched, these topics resonate with her both personally and professionally. For four years, Ingrid was the senior editor for apps at Common Sense Media, the nation’s leading nonprofit dedicated to helping families thrive in a world of media and technology.

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