We should limit children’s screen time but do so in a thoughtful, rather than reactive, way. The "right" amount of screen time can fall anywhere on a spectrum, depending on a number of factors, including the purpose and use of technology as well as the child's ability to use it in a mindful and self-regulating way.
To hit this ever-moving target, I have found questions to ponder more helpful than rules to follow when creating a framework for deciding how much screen time is appropriate for children. Ask yourself:
1. How are they using technology?
Not all screen time is created equal. Types of technology use fall into three buckets:
- Creational. This is when students use tech to create something original or cultivate skills to enable their vision.
- Functional. This type of tech use happens when students use their devices to connect with friends, communicate with the world, or carry out research or tasks.
- Recreational. This type of tech use is the most controversial. It refers to consumption of media, apps, games, etc., for entertainment value or to relax.
2. How are you fostering the use of creational technology?
Creational screen time is best for preparing kids for the future. As an educator, you can learn more about facilitating your students’ creational use of tech by immersing yourself in the broader technology culture. Analyze trends and the impact technology is having on the world. Discuss ideas from thought leaders, meet like-minded folk and create things yourself using technology as a regular part of life. Then bring some of the cool things you learn back to your classroom and let your students experiment.
3. Is technology building or hurting relationships?
Teach kids that relationships and networks are critical to future success. When using social media, encourage them to think beyond themselves. They should ask, "How is what I'm doing likely to create enjoyment or suffering for those around me?"
4. Are you collaborating with your students?
Children enjoy life more with fully developed self-regulation skills. How are they going to learn to manage their technology if you are always doing it for them? Collaborate with them on general principles. If the kids feel like they need a rule, then have them come up with it. It’s true that people support what they help build, and it helps to build self-regulation skills.
5. Is use of technology a privilege, entitlement or responsibility?
All privileges come with responsibilities, and most technology use is a privilege. Ask for your students’ help creating an acceptable use policy they can live with, as they’ll be much more likely to adhere to it if they play a part in its implementation.
6. Are you modeling good technology use?
Be the person you want your students to be — at least while they’re in your class. Are you present when you are with them, or are you checking email all the time? How much recreational technology are you using? Are you being a good digital citizen? Model the use you want to see in them as well as the balance between creational, functional and recreational technology that you want them to observe.
Dion Lim is CEO of NextLesson in San Francisco, California. He loves converting people, so his favorite project growing up was his seventh grade science fair project, where he switched black molly fish from a freshwater to a saltwater environment.
I'm a mom of two and an educator. And I have to admit something right here, right now: I get bored easily when playing with my kids.
I try to engage with the little ponies, the fairies and the Tonka trucks, and for a while, it all works out. Give me 20 minutes and I am super mommy, inventing stories that delight my kids, intricately weaving tales of action, romance and glory for the many characters and toys that populate my little ones’ rooms.
But when the 20 minutes is over, my creative energy is spent and my kiddos are begging for more.
Recently, however, I discovered something. As an educational technology specialist, part of my job is to explore new technologies and discover the connections these technologies can bring to the classroom. Along the way, I discover the connections these technologies can make to my family too.
I was exploring a stop-motion application on my tablet when it dawned on me: I should make a stop-motion video with my girls to tell a story with their toys.
Three hours later, we had a stop motion video that lasted 30 seconds, which was a big deal for us. My daughter and I had so much fun playing together that afternoon — and that was using over two hours of screen time!
I believe it is important to establish what screen time can really mean. Do I want my daughter playing with a tablet more than two hours straight without glancing up at her surrounding world? On an airplane or long car ride, yes! In real life, no.
But, if she's engaging with her world, exploring her world and creating her world? Yeah, I want her to do that. So what does that look like for us?
My daughter is 6 years old and can tackle a six-mile hike with gusto. While hiking, we give her an iPod to document her climb with images and videos. Yes, this sometimes includes a 20-second video of one flower — but that's her choice! When we get back, she puts together a video of all of the images and videos using the iPod. Then we send that video to grandparents living far away, and they get to experience their granddaughter’s storytelling skills.
That type of video often takes her longer than two hours to put together. Yet that doesn't concern me because she is preparing something that is meaningful to her and engages her with the world around her. She's telling the story of her adventure! When I was young, I drew pictures about my adventures. Today, she's drawing picture and adding photos, narration and music to her stories.
Technology can powerfully transform the time that kids spend with their families and in school. That minimizes my concerns about screen time and makes me aware that it's all about building meaningful experiences with our kiddos that engage and inspire them and enhance their view of the world. I think that trumps any arbitrary time limit on screen time.
Nannette McMurtry is an ed tech specialist and district library coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Longmont, Colorado. Before that she was a high school teacher for nine years in Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @edtechmusings to tell her how you use technology with your own families.