Beyond Screen Time

Content, context, and the needs of the individual child.  This triad of considerations – drawn from journalist Lisa Guernsey’s 2007 book, “Into the Minds of Babes” – forms the core of the Fred Rogers Center’s Framework for Quality in Children’s Digital Media.

Under this rubric, the generic term “screen time” ceases to be a useful measuring stick for young children’s media use.  Far more than simply turning on an egg timer, families and early educators need thoughtful guides for assessing what’s being viewed or used, by whom, when and where, and especially why.

This is an important distinction, one that the Fred Rogers Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children acknowledge in their joint position statement, “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8”:

The proliferation of digital devices with screens means that the precise meaning of “screen time” is elusive and no longer just a matter of how long a young child watches television, videos, or DVDs. Time spent in front of a television screen is just one aspect of how screen time needs to be understood and measured. Children and adults now have access to an ever-expanding selection of screens on computers, tablets, smartphones, handheld gaming devices, portable video players, digital cameras, video recorders, and more.

Without acknowledging context and content when discussing “screen time,” we miss critical nuances. How can screens be monolithic when they have such disparate, multifaceted, and highly contextual uses?  A tablet app like “Toontastic Jr.,” which lets distant family members co-create a story with a young child, is far different from a television screen.

Although TV is still children’s favorite medium, it now competes in a massively interactive universe where play, learning, exploration, sharing, and communication intertwine seamlessly. Let’s consider some arguments for and against saying that a screen is a screen is a screen.

Does time with media displace things we know to be crucial to growth and learning – human interaction, reading, exploration of the real world?  Certainly it can, but healthy children’s lives are multidimensional and can accommodate carefully chosen television, apps, or games in addition to other pursuits.

Moreover, today’s media are far from exclusive of the above activities; thoughtful use will supplement, not replace books, outdoor time, or play.  The smartphone or tablet isn’t just something parents “pass back” to occupy a child; emerging apps and games encourage “pass back and forth” for play and joint storytelling.  eReaders are ideally sized as “cuddleware.”  Affordances of mobile media – the camera, in particular, but also augmented reality, GPS, and internet search – make them ideal for families to explore, explain, and document the world together.

We have to help give children tools, building blocks for active play.  And the computer is one of those building blocks.  No computer will ever take the place of wooden toys or building blocks.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be mutually exclusive. -Fred Rogers, 1985

Fred Rogers saw this potential all the way back in 1985, when his company created an early piece of software called “Many Ways to Say I Love You.”  In an interview with Family Computing, he said of the computer, “We have to help give children tools, building blocks for active play.  And the computer is one of those building blocks.  No computer will ever take the place of wooden toys or building blocks.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be mutually exclusive.”

“Device shifting” – watching TV or movies on a mobile screen – is increasingly common.  This could be a matter for concern if it simply adds passive viewing time.  The history of developments in electronic media, however, teaches that new platforms neither replace nor simply mimic old ones; they add to and differentiate from them.  Screens aren’t automatically “transitive” – you can watch video on a tablet but you can’t necessarily interact with the same show on the flat-screen at home (though TV apps are a growing field).  That’s why we’re seeing a rush of innovative “second screen” concepts – add-ons that encourage interaction, play, or learning alongside the story.

Context is as important as content:  time, place, and purpose of media use matter greatly.  Carrying a gaming device to relieve anxiety during a doctor visit or long flight serves a different purpose from using a phone’s camera to take pictures on a neighborhood walk.  Depending on the context, watching Dora the Explorer use a map isn’t the same as drawing your own with Nick Jr.’s “Draw and Play” app.

Parents concerned about their children’s media exposure should be first to appreciate differences among screens, as every device offers unique parental controls.  TV stations vet content in advance (and parents can choose which channels suit their values), but TV streams into the home without end.  YouTube is unfiltered – its inexhaustible scope is good news for those with special interests, but adults should be cautious about what kids may find when they move from one video to another.   Parents can choose what applications to install on phones and tablets.  Internet filters – blockers, whitelists, and content portals – can build a “walled garden” online.  Choices among game consoles can favor a sit-down experience or total-body involvement of systems like Wii or Kinect (David Pogue of the New York Times wrote, “You can’t play Kinect sitting down, and that’s a plus”).

All screens aren’t the same for content creators, either.  Scrupulous content creators are eager to join with parents and caregivers in exploring and expanding best practices, and parents and educators would be reassured by seeing “behind the curtain” of most children’s media development.  Producers must make thoughtful decisions about what platform to employ from the very start. To compare just two possibilities:

·      TV offers the biggest audience, but production is expensive and channel gatekeepers control very limited time slots;

·      Mobile media are highly interactive, relatively inexpensive to produce, and open to large and small producers; however, productions flow into an overwhelming marketplace where it’s difficult to rise above the clutter, and profit margins are low.

Producers then must strive to best use the possibilities of their chosen platform.  They test their concept with children at multiple stages, checking the appeal of the basic idea, the clarity of the story or playability of the app, the usability of the interface, and the overall success with the audience of the almost-finished product.  For TV, wrapping production is the finish; for app and game developers, it’s the start of an ongoing relationship of fixes, updates, expansion packs, or sequels.

Screens can be fixed or mobile; some excel at storytelling and others at gaming; they can support solitary or social engagement; devices may be self-contained or connect to the wide world.  The direct pointing and tapping of a multitouch screen is vastly better suited to a toddler’s cognitive capacities than the hand-eye coordination needed to manipulate a mouse and cursor.

The truth seems self-evident: all screens are not created equal.

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