Growing up in a wired world: Mindfully managing kids’ screen time

October is Computer Learning Month and October 5 is World Teachers’ Day! Both are great opportunities to celebrate the importance of technology in our children’s lives and futures while recognizing that parents are their children’s first teachers and that they model—or should—be modeling priorities.

Our kids are practically born with devices in their hands. They need to be proficient with them, and we want them to be. Yet we also want them to be kind, friendly, effective, face-to-face communicators and capable problem-solvers in a range of contexts and situation. How to strike a balance?

Last year Dr. Michelle M. Neumann, Griffith University, Australia, published “Young Children and Screen Time: Creating a Mindful Approach to Digital Technology,” published in the journal of Australian Educational Computing. In reaching her conclusions, she drew from 40 separate scholarly articles from around the world. Several she cited “have highlighted how preschoolers can learn communication skills by using digital devices to creatively explore their world and express themselves.”

She noted that “one size fits all approach may not be the best way to approach screen time,” and that the purpose of technology use (education vs. simple entertainment), the type of screen time (interactive touch screen tablet activities vs. more passive television viewing), and the “types and quality of apps (e.g., educational, gaming, creating)” are a few important variables.

Back in the fall of 2010, Speak Up, a national initiative of Project Tomorrow, conducted a large-scale U.S. study of K-12 students, parents, teachers, librarians, school/district administrators and technology leaders representing 1,340 districts. The resulting report was titled “The New 3E’s of Education: Enabled, Engaged, Empowered—How Today’s Students are Leveraging Emerging Technologies for Learning.” It suggested that “Parents are more than ever enabling, engaging, and empowering their children’s educational lives by providing additional home based access to online resources and digital content.” 

It’s increasingly easy to produce and market apps, and increasingly challenging to evaluate their content and value. Educational apps from School Zone are designed out of nearly 40 years’ experience in producing best-in-industry learning materials for preschool through sixth grade. All the apps are educational, though some such as Math 1, Math 2, and Math 3 On-Track (for a variety of devices) focus on targeted skills (with game rewards included), and others, such as Memory Match build skills important for all subjects, and still others, such as I Like to Paint, particularly encourage creating.

And although a mounting body of research recommends extremely limiting screen or device time for kids under age 2, when it’s time to buy a device for older toddlers and preschoolers, one specifically designed for them and offering a safe, secure learning environment, such as the Little Scholar® learning tablet for ages 3-7, is ideal.

Of course, showing kids that unplugged time with one another is precious, remains a parent-as-teacher’s top priority. Vicki Glembocki, writing for Parents Magazine, in “How to Teach People Skills to Your Child,” points out what should be obvious but too often gets lost: “Children learn how to interact by watching their mom and dad.” She elaborates that “If they see you using a tablet at the dinner table or diving into your pocket to read a text while talking with a neighbor, they figure that interactions with electronics are just as important -- if not more so -- than those with people.”

To borrow a phrase from  Dr. Neumann, a “mindful approach to digital technology,” one that considers time spent, purpose, and quality, is likely a parent’s best strategy in striking a balance.