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.