Last week, I was in St. Lucia visiting my family. I observed my four year old niece’s screen use habits. Occasionally, she was quiet while watching TV or playing on an iPhone. However, most of the time, she was singing along with the show, answering educational questions posed by the actors, matching rhyming words, drawing pictures and reading books. At other times, she read physical books to me (mostly from memory), played with Play Doh, played with the family’s cats, wrote out most of the letters of the alphabet, played with her cousins, and inquired about everything that she observed family members doing. She is inquisitive and loves learning. She is ready for school before the teacher, who is a relative and lives next door.
Let me be clear, my niece is in the four year old program at her school and they use no technology during the school day. She spends several hours watching television or “playing” on the iPad each day. The apps installed on the iPad are all educational or blank canvas (to encourage creativity). As I watched her interaction with screens, it reminded me that not all screen time is created equal.
I had read a little on the screen time debate but my observations triggered my desire to know more on the issue. One of the first studies that I came across showed that “the effects of media are mediated more by what is watched than how much is watched” (Christakis & Zimmerman, as cited by Christakis, 2011, p.1).
I used to think that there was no reason to get a tablet for my niece, despite the interest of her parents to get one. Now I think that there is no problem with getting her a tablet, but that we need to be thoughtful about what we install on it and careful to use it with her to model responsible and meaningful uses. We know that a strawberry is a much healthier treat than a lollipop. Is it any surprise then that the impact of media on children depends on the quality and content?
I’m not saying that we should have no concerns about the rising consumption of media by children. I think that balance is important and that children should be exposed to a variety of experiences, many of them in the physical world. I also feel that an (arbitrary) determination of a maximum amount of screen time that children should have circumvents the more important discussion about the impact of different types of screen time. I say yay to learning time that involves screens, while recognizing the importance of other activities in a child’s (and adult’s) life. However, I acknowledge that it may be difficult to determine which apps and programs facilitate the ability of children to learn valuable skills, concepts and information. Lisa Guernsey stresses the importance of context, content and the particular child in determining the use of media.