Saturday, June 2, 2012

Limit screen time? You’re limiting their future, too.

With technology always on the rise, the amount of time children spend in front of screens is increasing. Many parents seem alarmed at this trend. I personally think it’s a wonderful thing. Listen to this Facebook status from my friend Annie, for example:

Josh has a friend in the UK that he plays with on Skype almost every day. Mostly they play minecraft, but in so many creative ways like hide and seek and making up game shows for each other (usually minecraft related questions). I love it, he is having so much fun!

The benefits in just that little paragraph are almost too many to count: Talking to a kid in another country, pretend play, the strategy involved in playing hide and seek in a near-endless online landscape, the creativity involved in Minecraft itself, and the bond of a good friendship. Why on Earth would anyone want to limit that?

Right now I'm running a laptop with a second monitor docked in, so that I can watch How the Universe Works on Netflix on one screen while blogging with Windows Live Writer and Evernote on the other. My mind tends to jump from one idea to the next while writing, so I have one screen subdivided into four separate windows so I can run separate notes with each paragraph I'm working on, without worrying what order the paragraphs will be in in the final draft. So actually, I could do with even another monitor! I can also use one monitor to watch Khan Academy lectures while solving equations on the other. I can use one screen to keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook while using another to create art. If I added a smartphone or a tablet to my setup, I could do even more. More screens = more productivity and more learning.

I share a house with four other young adults, plus many friends who regularly come over. Our living room contains four screens, not including any laptops or handheld devices that wander in. We have a large HDTV hooked up to cable with TiVo, a Wii, a PS3 and an XBOX 360, which can also be used to watch DVDs, Netflix, Hulu and Youtube. We have a small CRT TV connected to older gaming consoles like my SNES and N64, as well as a PS2 for playing DDR (exercise!). We have a monitor hooked up to an arcade-style console for fighting games, and another large monitor connected to a small netbook for use as the house "guest computer". What all these screens do is enable many people to do activities together when they may have otherwise retreated to their individual rooms.

Screens can be a vital tool for allowing kids to connect with other people. While I was growing up, I had relatives I spoke with only a few times in my entire childhood because we could only reach them by expensive long-distance telephone calls. Now kids can be with family and friends for free via Skype, or instantly email photos, or keep everyone updated via a blog. There are even websites designed to keep family updated on the progress and treatment of people with medical conditions, so if your child breaks his leg or your grandmother is in the nursing home, everyone in the family can find out how they're doing from the other side of the world. 

I've also seen "screen time" used to help kids connect with people face to face (or, to use a geek phrase, in "meatspace"). Lots of kids need downtime when faced with a huge crowd, and a Nintendo DS or a laptop with Netflix is the perfect solution for allowing a frazzled kid some "me" time so they can return to the party calm and ready to play again. Even as an adult, I find my laptop extremely useful for handling social situations which I find overwhelming. If I didn't have it, there are many cases where I'd just have to go home early or not attend the gathering at all.

The frustrating part about the stigma of "screen time" is that even while demonizing their kids' use of technology, adults know screens are useful. How many adults do you know who check their email every half hour, or never put down their iPhone? How many adults take classes online or depend on a GPS to get where they're going? And what about ebooks - would a Kindle or Nook be considered "screen time" and summarily banned or limited, even though it is used to read books? 

I feel almost silly, in this day and age, writing a post about the benefits of technology. It's almost like I'm writing for a time-traveler from another era. But in a way, I am. I think many parents see childhood as something that exists outside of the current state of the world. If something wasn't part of their own childhood, they assume it's not necessary for growing up. I think that's absolutely false. Sure, proficiency with computers, smartphones and other technology may not have been necessary for kids growing up 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, but kids growing up now have to live in the world as it is today. And whether you personally like being surrounded by technology or not, your kids have just as much right to access it as you do. They need it more than you, because when they are adults, technology will have sped even further ahead of where it is now. Kids who grow up comfortable with a variety of devices today will be running the world tomorrow.

Now, I realize there are class privilege issues with access to technology. All these computers and iGadgets are expensive, and there are families who can't afford them. I'm not trying to shame or demean those families! But not being able to afford something is very different from intentionally withholding it. Would you deny your kids access to a library, a community art class or a good summer camp if you knew they wanted that access and you could provide it? I doubt many parents would prevent their kids from accessing those resources if they knew they could afford it. And to be perfectly honest, as someone who grew up poor, I think it's offensive and wasteful to spend hundreds of dollars on computers and video games and only allow your kids to use them for 30 minutes a day. It's like buying a designer outfit, wearing it to one party and then putting it in your closet for the rest of the year. My parents saved pennies all year to buy me a Super Nintendo, and you bet your ass they let me use it. They wanted me to get every dollar's worth out of that thing. So if you think giving your kids access to lots of technology is "spoiling" them, I'd argue that it takes a much more privileged attitude to buy expensive devices and then leave them collecting dust.

But for me, ultimately what makes limiting "screen time" nonsensical is that there is simply no such activity as "screen time". A screen is not an activity, it is a tool, just like a pencil or a canvas or a wrench. Except those tools all mostly have one purpose, and a screen can have hundreds. Screens are used for all kinds of activities, from socializing to gaming to movie watching to organizing to writing to studying - almost anything you can do, you can do on or with a screen! And yes, that even includes exercise: witness the Wii Fit, for example, or iPhone apps that track your workout routine. By limiting screen time, you are not limiting an activity. You are severely narrowing your child's whole range of activities and denying them access to valuable tools. If you tried to argue in favor of limiting screen time twenty years ago, when screens were mainly useful for MTV and simple video games, you might've had a better case. (You still wouldn't have convinced me, because I don't think TV and video games are harmful, but you would've had a better case.) But today, when screens do absolutely everything? Demonizing screens is absolutely absurd. And limiting screen time is foolish for the same reason limiting any activity is foolish - scarcity increases value

All in all, I think limiting screen time does kids way, way more harm than good. I’m a better person because I spent hours a day as a teen chatting with people on the other side of the world. I’m a better friend because I can stay connected across distances using Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. I’m a better employee because I know how to use assistive technology to help the kids I babysit. I’m smarter, I’m happier, I’m more connected to the world. If my parents had limited my screen time, my world would be small and sad. That’s not what I want for any kid in my life. 


Anonymous said...

Two images come to mind. An old native American man stubbornly refusing to give up his tribe's hunting and gathering lifestyle in favor of tilling the land, even under the threat of physical harm by a European colonizer. Pure foolishness of course. Wasn't he aware that the world was changing?

And an old Inuit couple sitting in their new government funded apartment. They say their lives are more comfortable now with modern conveniences, but less satisfying.

It's human nature, and I believe the nature of other animals as well, to want to expend the least amount of effort to satisfy our basic needs. Satisfaction with life circumstances comes second.

As for the suggestion that screen based media improves cognitive capacities, here's a quote by Patricia Greenfield: “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others".
And more from

'Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies, she wrote, has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” But those gains go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”'

As for limiting kids' futures by limiting screen time--how so? Do you realize how quickly a human mind adapts to Internet and computer technology (esp young adults)? It's not a skill that needs to be honed from childhood; need I point out how user friendly screen-based media is?

Elisha Aster said...

I normally wouldn't bother arguing with someone who comments as anonymous, but you raised a few points I really felt the need to respond to.

First of all, I strongly object to your comparison of modern children with colonized indigenous peoples. It's deeply offensive to suggest that allowing a child to use a computer is in ANY way comparable to invading a continent, conquering and enslaving its people and committing centuries of genocide. Pardon my crassness, but fuck that. I'm also annoyed by the use of Native peoples as a symbol of a bygone era of quaintness. You do understand that Native people still exist and they also use technology? That this post is written about all children, including those of indigenous tribes? One of the ways white people continue to oppress indigenous people is by keeping them in poverty, thereby denying them access to technology and higher education, both of which could empower them with the information they need to keep their cultural traditions alive. Witness Tumblr, for example, which allows Native bloggers from many various indigenous Nations to find each other and band together in solidarity. This is exactly the kind of power that white society does not want people of color to have.

As for technology weakening our capacity for "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection", I simply don't buy that. I have seen with my own two eyes that technology allows many diverse people to come together and exchange ideas in ways that simply would not have been possible or allowed 50 years ago. Blogs, Skype, smartphone apps, detailed strategy games, and other forms of modern technology build exactly those skills. Visual spatial skills were the argument for allowing kids to play Pong 30 years ago. Technology today is much, much more. I stand by what I said in my original post: A screen is not an activity, but a tool that can be used for the full range of human activities.

The fact that a skill can be learned in adulthood is simply not an acceptable reason to limit it in childhood. Mathematics, foreign languages, sports, arts and other skills can all be learned by adults, but that does not mean their inclusion in a childhood does not enrich that child's life. Children are people NOW and the whole array of things they are allowed to do today enriches the person they are now as well as the person they will become in the future.

Anonymous said...

First off, I forgot to ask what wonderful part of the world you live in where you feel the need to moan about parents who limit their kids' screen time;). My ten-year-old has very few friends, well actually no real friend, because he doesn't play video games like everyone else. Not because I limit it while hanging with friends (I don't), but he just doesn't care for the type of games everyone here plays (multiplayer war games?). He'd rather play a game of monopoly or other strategy stuff, whether on a screen or board. There are very few kids his age outside playing during the day, even though we live in a very kid-dense and pedestrian only neighborhood. I mostly only see little ones out. I grew up in a pretty much identical nieghboorhood thirty years ago, and there were kids out all the time, all ages. I remember not being home at all during the summer.

Second, you got me wrong. I think you may be under the impression I'm questioning your decision to have unlimited screen time for your kids, but I didn't read your post as a defense of what you do, but more of a critique of parents who do wish to impose limits. I'm not a Native American or Inuit, but I still feel I have the right to decline certain offerings of the modern world. I don't feel that my choice is absurd, but rather is in harmony with my overall view of life. My wish is that parents everywhere parent according to their own convictions. It ensures continuity for the kids, even if they later on decide to choose a different path.

I didn't click on your hyperlink 'scarcity increases value', so I mistakenly thought you meant parents were foolish (perhaps you still do, but whatever). I did read the text now and I have to say I disagree that relaxing constraints will take focus off the activity. I never had restrictions on TV watching or video game playing growing up, but it was still a large part of my focus (during our long winter). In warm weather I found plenty time to hang outdoors though cause we only had three channels and super mario brothers. It wasn't until I was 14 or 15 that I significantly decreased the mindless type TV watching (where you just have it on for no reason, watching any dumb show) simply because I was old enough to realize that I wasn't actually enjoying it. That was also when I played my last session of super mario brothers--I managed to finish all the levels on one single life:). I was done.

My brother who is ten years younger did not have screen time limits either and he spends most of his free time playing games as a young adult. He barely played outside like us older four siblings did. My other two brothers also spend a large part of their day in front of a screen. One is a very successful poker player, and the other runs a business online, and also enjoys creating games.

I suppose my reason for limiting screen time for my kids is because I feel intuitively that many of these technologies are incompatible with what I consider a mentally and physically healthy life. With every new technology that has entered in history, certain skills become redundant and are lost. Most people no longer make their own clothes for example, cause they don't have to. Like I commented before, we're wired to expend the least amount of energy to get what we need. Satisfaction comes second. The old native american man in my example didn't want to adopt agriculture as a new technology, because he had been raised according to a belief system in which only hunting and gathering made sense, not cultivation and domestication.

Anonymous said...

(I'm curious if word limits contribute to an orientation towards a decrease of content depth.)

Of course, the downside to rejecting the majority culture is that you may end up on the side lines. But I'm at peace with that. The future can be anything you make of it. If my kids bring my ideals with them into adulthood, I'm sure they will find meaningful work outside of the norm. They may not be as well equipped to partake in a competitive and cyber oriented society as their peers, but as I'm teaching them to follow their heart, I'm sure they'll find their proper place on the edge of it. There will be plenty of people to join them.

Elisha Aster said...

Look, you can do whatever you want to your kids and I can't stop you. But I ask you: if you're so sure you're doing right by your kids, why did you just spend so much time defending your choices to a total stranger on the internet? You could've spent that time doing something with your kids but you spent it arguing with me instead. Why? Why was that so important to you at this time?

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to make sense of what you're saying. Why is it that I shouldn't spend time discussing a something that's important to me?

Choosing to limit (or not) something so ubiquitous takes a bit of consideration and constant re-evaluation. A nice effect of our conversation has had me evaluate once again how screens impact my life. I've tried googling articles about the negative impacts, but only come up with 'why computers aren't so bad after all' stuff. So much for google being a neutral tool, huh...

Discussing (not arguing) with others on the other side of a spectrum helps me organize and develop my thoughts about a particular subject. Just what I imagine is part of the reason you keep this blog, communicating with total strangers (and not) about your life and ideas.

I'd be far more interested in your thoughts about what we were discussing, than explaining my intentions. But something tells me you're not interested:).