Why Counting Screen Time Minutes Isn’t an Education Strategy

Is technology more like a germ or a medicine? preschool-300x200

If technology devices are like germs, then we grudgingly accept them as part of children’s worlds, but we work to limit contact as much as possible. If they are more akin to a medication, then we should be able to determine an optimal dose while also understanding that using too much or none are both dangerous.

In essence, these are the choices offered by the medical paradigm that has guided the use of technology in early childhood education for decades. To provide the educational foundation that children need to thrive in their multimedia world, we need to expand those choices.

In states across the US, medical sources underpin nearly all child care licensing rules governing the use of technology with young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Caring for Our Children (CFOC), and the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS) are all written from a medical perspective. Even the first principle in the Rogers Center’s “Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children” takes a “do no harm” approach, underscoring the need for digital media to “safeguard the health, well-being, and overall development of young children.”

In a medical model, the goal is health. When applied to technology, that goal is expressed as the question, “How do we keep children safe?” When you “backwards map” to design curriculum based on that goal, you invariably end up with limits on screen time (and often not much else). In fact, screen time limits dominate the recommendations proffered by AAP and CFOC. (To their credit, the AAP also recommends media literacy education for children older than two, a recommendation that is too often ignored.) The thing is, children don’t acquire skills or knowledge from an approach that is basically a game of keep-away.

How do we help children become literate in a digital world?

Of course, safety is a prerequisite for learning, so educators won’t be abandoning the medical paradigm anytime soon, nor should they. But it’s an odd starting point for educational design. Have you ever heard someone say that they nurture emergent literacy or teach number sense in order to keep children safe?

So what happens if we change the paradigm? What if the launch pad for technology integration is instead, “How do we help children become literate in a digital world?” Now, rather than focusing on counting minutes of screen time, we get a rich array of activities and interactions that help children develop the “habits of inquiry and skills of expression they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators, and active citizens in today’s world” (as the National Association for Media Literacy Education puts it in its Core Principles).

What happens is something like Vivian Vasquez and Carol Felderman’s tomato plant project. In that project, children grew tomato plants and also analyzed a TV ad targeted at gardeners, conducted a scientific experiment to test the claims of the ad, discussed gender stereotyping in the ad, did internet research, and used word clouds to compare websites about growing tomatoes. These activities seamlessly integrated screen-based technologies, using them to do things that would be nearly impossible without digital tools. At the height of the project, children certainly surpassed the ECERS 30-minute per week limit on screen time, though I suspect that even the most strident opponent of technology would be hard-pressed to label what happened in this class as anything but excellent practice.

They integrate technology in much the same way that teachers integrate books, crayons, and storytelling – as tools that help us explore the world and share ideas.

And Vasquez and Felderman are not alone. Brian Puerling (Teaching in the Digital Age, 2012), Renee Hobbs and David Cooper Moore (Discovering Media Literacy, 2013), or even my own recent webinar for Erikson’s TEC Center all offer similar examples of technology integration. What distinguishes these examples is that they don’t merely use screen time to introduce or rehearse discrete skills. Rather, they integrate technology in much the same way that teachers integrate books, crayons, and storytelling – as tools that help us explore the world and share ideas.

When technology is integrated in the ways envisioned by the joint position statement issued by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center—with intention, developmentally appropriate goals, and a well-informed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of technology options—it sparks conversations, curiosity, and creativity. As demonstrated by the tomato project, it also provides ample opportunities to practice reasoning, observation, and communication skills.

When we shift the paradigm from safety to education, we open curriculum design to activities and interactions that provide children with the full benefits of being literate. In a digital world, those benefits cannot be achieved without allowing children to engage with technology. And we can’t help children develop digital and media literacy competencies unless we incorporate technologies in ways that are based in sound pedagogy rather than clock management. To put it another way, we can’t accomplish complex educational goals using only a medical model.

I’m reminded of a conversation with friends who were handing over their son to me for a play date. I was the indulgent auntie who occasionally shared otherwise forbidden snacks, computer games, or videos. They jokingly said that we could do whatever we wanted as long as I handed him back alive. That’s the quintessential safety argument. Ironically, it’s often the expectation we have of babysitters. But those who have valiantly fought for professional recognition have rightly argued that early childhood educators are so much more than babysitters. Why, then, when it comes to technology are we still holding early childhood professionals to babysitter standards? We can do better and the people caring for our children deserve our best.

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