Cyber experts have long maintained that “screen-time ain’t screen-time” - in other words, that the quality of our kids’ online experiences matters as much as the quantity.
The present crisis - which has seen a spike in time online across all age groups - has underscored the point: Screen-time can be life-line. But how do you figure out what to allow, and how much?
When our kids use technology for learning, creative engagement, or positive, age-appropriate social interaction, experts say, they will be getting the best out of their time online. But there’s an important caveat. As parents, we still need to provide the scaffolding - setting limits and boundaries - to ensure their optimal digital health and wellbeing.
Devorah Heitner, author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in the Digital World, insists, as do most cyber experts today, that “not all ‘screen-time’ is equivalent.
“But it is tough for parents who have been socialised to measure the quality of their parenting (and to judge their peers) by the amount of screen-time they allow their children to have.”
A family rule of “two hours of screen-time a day” is easy - or at least straightforward. But in the present crisis, with many children still being homeschooled and almost all restricted from their normal activities, simple quantitative measures are no longer practical.
It's tough for parents who have been socialised to measure the quality of their parenting (and to judge their peers) by the amount of screen-time they allow their children to have.”
And maybe, suggests Heitner, that’s a good thing - forcing us to become more sophisticated in the way we approach the screen-time challenge. The aim? To manage screen-time mindfully but also strategically.
We can start by checking in on three key areas: Learning, Creativity and Social Interaction.
Sure, there are the formal learning activities that schools have been providing. But that’s not where online learning begins and ends.
Heitner suggests involving kids directly in identifying learning areas that interest them. Ask them, “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn? Is there something we never seem to have enough time to do?
“Sit down and make a list together, because this will truly depend on your kid’s interests.”
And if the response is “More time on Nintendo/Minecraft/Snapchat” - don’t despair.
Says Heitner, “Work together to audit these experiences and understand why they are compelling. Take the opportunity to ask them what they’re learning in these spaces and what they can bring back into the family.”
Most mums and dads are aware that passive consumption of online content is, in most cases, the lowest quality screen-time (think scrolling endlessly through social media feeds or TikTok videos). And let’s not be hypocrites here. Isn’t this a screen-time temptation we all need to resist?
Heitner’s tip is to challenge kids to make or build or create something cool online, developing skills that take them into the offline world - whether creating original music in GarageBand, editing family videos into a feature film using a movie-making app, or learning any of a myriad of skills on YouTube, from bread-baking to animation to woodworking.
The present restrictions have seriously impacted our kids’ freedom to … well, be kids - to play, to engage in real-world sports and games, to connect face-to-face in three dimensions.
“School-aged children who miss their friends but weren’t on social media before,” notes Heitner, “are getting a crash course in building relationships via text or social media, often on their parents devices.”
She advises parents to keep an open mind when it comes to kids’ socialising online.
“What kind of jokes would they normally be swapping during lunch at school in second grade? That’s what you might hear if they talk over Facebook Messenger Kids or Zoom right now.”
Maybe you’ve decided to allow access to an app or game that was previously off-limits to your child. If so, says Heitner, take advantage of the unusual proximity in your household right now to get to know how it works - to listen in to the chat, understand how the controls work, or co-view the livestreams.
Let your child lead you, as you navigate the new experience together.
So do screen-time limits still matter?
They absolutely do, Heitner insists - now more than ever, when “schoolwork on a Chromebook can quickly give way to surfing the web and the dreaded endless scroll.” She calls these necessary limits “scaffolding.”
The reality is, kids need help knowing when enough is enough.
Parental controls like Family Zone are the easiest and most effective way to keep kids on-task - and off social media and games - during schooltime, no matter what device they’re using.
And, while quality of screen-time matters a great deal - quantity does too. Ideally, parents should aim to support children to self-regulate. But the reality is, kids need help knowing when enough is enough.
Using sensible, flexible parental controls, parents can set aside tech-free times during meals and before bedtime, or at any other time they choose, to ensure kids don’t lose touch with the world beyond their screens.
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