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A Nuanced View of Screen Time

Even media that's not specifically educational can spur learning and connection, with an intentional approach
Parent looking at laptop with child

Many children are experiencing the bulk of their life and school days through a screen, stretching (and stressing) many parents’ and caregivers’ efforts to limit screen time. With concerns about heightened screen time during the pandemic, children’s media expert Joe Blatt advises caregivers to think about screen time in more complex ways. Rather lumping all screen time together as “bad,” Blatt says it is important to consider quality and purpose, in addition to quantity.

“No one talks about ‘book time’ as a concern for kids, but there are good books and bad books, good times to read and other times to play or go outside or talk together,” say Blatt, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who will be leading an upcoming professional development workshop on the topic, called Screen Time Savvy. “That’s a good way to think about screen time.”

Caregivers should be thoughtful and selective about how a child spends time on screens when outside of school and try to choose educational content. There are plenty of helpful sites, such as this Common Sense Media guide to raising kids in the digital age, to help families evaluate the many options available. But Sarah Krongard, a media educator and researcher working with Blatt on the workshop, cautions families not to write off media that isn’t obviously educational, noting that most media can be used for educational purposes.

“Think about how you can use it,” she advises. “Say your child is watching Marvel movies, for example; you can be engaged in that content and have useful conversation about power dynamics, or decision-making and consequences. You can encourage young people to think critically through dialogue. Content that is not designed to be educational can have implications for social and emotional development or be used as an exercise in perspective-taking.”

In other words, there are a lot of different ways to use media. It’s important to distinguish between screen time with learning goals, screen time as entertainment and connection, and screen time that is unproductive or inappropriate.

Krongard cautions parents and caregivers against shutting down your child’s use of popular social media sites like Tik Tok or Instagram and consider what your child might be getting out of the experience, especially when opportunities to interact with peers is limited. It is likely a child is getting something out of whatever they are engaged in and parents can use the things children are passionate about to find a starting point and engage with them. “It’s in the way that you use screen time,” she says.

Key Takeaways

  • Choose quality content for children to engage with whether solely for educational or entertainment purposes.
  • Meet your child where they are on the screen as a way to have conversations and engage with them.
  • Don’t only assess screen use based on minutes and hours.
  • Do advocate for breaks from the screen. Make sure your child gets time outside, interacts with environments beyond the screen. “Especially in times when we are working at home and Zoom bound throughout the day, we need to change up the rhythm of the day – take walks, explore local sites, talk about something other than school or work, and get away from screens,” Blatt says.
  • Model good screen behavior for your children. “What you do is probably more important than what you say,” Blatt reminds. If you spend all day on your phone or glued to a screen, then don’t be surprised when your child does the same.
  • Connect with your child’s teacher if you think they need more breaks from the screen more often.

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