Image: Flickr/Kenny Louie cc license

When I was growing up, my dad traveled a lot. Once when I was 9 years old, he came home from a trip with a big box and asked me to come into his office. He said that inside the box was something he and I could share.

It was a Commodore 64… a computer! Not only could my father use it for work, he said, but he had bought a joystick and a cassette player with a bunch of games on it. I was hooked. And it turns out, so were most of my classmates and we spent many afternoon playing for hours on end.

No one ever wondered if all that screen time was bad for us.

Today, young people grow up surrounded by screens. A 2016 Neilson report found that the average American spends an average 10 hours and 39 minutes per day with screens. Children as young as eight spend as many hours engaged in media activity as they spend in school.

Keeping kids away from screens is impossible and even counterproductive. For example, Oxford researchers have found that some “digital connectivity may enhance creativity, communication skills and development.” A study by Vanderbilt University involving over 7,000 kids showed that they learned better with games, were more motivated and were able to deal better with mistakes than kids who learned in a more traditional non-games-based environment.

And a comparison of workplace skills and skills obtained in the game ‘World of Warcraft’ showed that game players were able to build the capability to engage in strategy-building, team-building, knowledge-sharing and problem-solving remotely.

Screens are a fact of life, useful not only in entertainment and careers, but also in in travel, hobbies, learning, you name it. By the time our kids grow up, they are expected to have computing skills that most of us born in the 70s or 80s are only just beginning to think about.

As with any subject in parenting, the “perfect” amount of screen time may just come down to the right balance and combination of learning, playing and off-screen time, rather than trying to measure screen time.

But how do we help young people find this balance when according to them, we just don’t get it? #screenager! Here are some strategies:

  • Play Together: Engage with kids both offline and online. Playing together is even better when the games are ones that matter.
  • Explore Risks: Mentor young people in selecting their own content. Just as you taught your kids about the dangers of crossing the street, teach them about the risks of online actions
  • Lead By Example: This might be the most important one. How can you expect your kids to put down their phones if you can’t put down your own?

Like many aspects of parenting, it would be so much easier if there were a right and a wrong answer. But the fact is there is not. With screens, it’s less about how long a child uses a screen-based device and more about what they learn to do with it.

Unlimited Candy Crush? Probably a bad idea. But by connecting, communicating, and engaging in games and activities that guide learning or personal development, kids can have their screens and still be well-adjusted.

Instead of trying to pry that screen from your child’s hands, consider working with your child to discover ways to use that screen to engage his or her learning, motivation and imagination.

Rosemary Lokhorst

Professional geek and guru of all things digital. Vice President of Operations at Living PlanIT, among many other hats. Guiding development of the Digging Deep digital game.


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