Screens, the i-Elephant in the Room

Is it just me, or are you conflicted about “screen time” for your kids?

The whole things makes me just want to scream.

The whole thing makes me just want to scream.

When Molly came home from her 2 hours at school last week with a Screen-Free Week Pledge Card, which would have had her, and the rest of the family, pledge to give up all screens from April 29 – May 5, I was pretty conflicted.  In the end, though, we threw out the pledge.  Here is why.

On the one hand, too much indiscriminate screen time can take away from important things like physical exercise, proper sleep, and family interaction.

On the other hand, the idea of limiting my children’s use of these devices – – when the content they are accessing is carefully chosen – – makes no sense to me.

We do not have television or cable.  Instead, we access commercial-free content via computer, I-Pad, DVD player and smartphone.   We also do not have screens in any of our bedrooms.  We don’t use them while we are eating.   And we talk openly about them as a tool, meant to educate and interact and, of course, to entertain (not all screen time has to be “educational”, right?).

We use screens to interact with family and friends, to read, to write, to learn letters and numbers and facts about our world.  We’ve whiled away many an afternoon learning to cooperate and problem-solve on Pikmin 2 or New Super Mario Bros.  We’ve learned how to crack an egg, paint a bee, and do a back walkover using YouTube.  We’ve literally danced the night away on Just Dance.

I don’t want my kids brains to turn to mush.  I am well aware of the research that suggests that too much screen time leads to things like poor sleep, obesity, delayed language acquisition, lower math and school achievement, reduced physical activity, victimization by classmates, and psychological difficulties, including hyperactivity.

But I think that research is simplistic and outdated in lumping all screens together and in choosing an arbitrary time limit like 2 hours per day.  There is a BIG difference between passively watching cable television with all its commercials and interacting with an iPad app or a Wii game or even searching the internet.  One allows the technology to happen to you.  The others require thought, direction, and action from the user.

If you like research, how about that of Dr. Sugata Mitra?  Made famous by his “hole in the wall experiments”, Dr. Mitra just won the 2013 TED Prize for his research that shows that children can learn almost anything by themselves using the internet.

About 15 years ago Sugata literally carved a hole between his office wall in New Delhi India and the neighboring slum.  Then he put an internet-connected PC and a hidden camera in the hole and waited.  Within weeks he saw poor, illiterate, kids from the slum playing with the computer, learning English and searching the internet for information, and then teaching each other.

I find that my own kids interact with the internet the same way.  They can figure out a game or a program without any input from me.

I am not suggesting that screens are more important than getting outside or reading a book together.  Rather, they can be equally enriching.  Banning them for a week of your kids’ life overlooks their value and sends the wrong message.

Instead of ignoring them for a week, I think we should make a pledge to learn how to use screens better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hut to build on Minecraft before the sun goes down and the zombies come out.


3 thoughts on “Screens, the i-Elephant in the Room

  1. Pingback: Is it Possible for Children to Learn Without “Instruction”? | gorgeous little thieves

  2. Pingback: Popular Mechanics for Kids | gorgeous little thieves

  3. Pingback: Youth Digital, Learning Java with Minecraft Isn’t Just for The Kids! | gorgeous little thieves

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