Research proves that too much screen time for kids can have a negative effect on learning. But the right amount of screen time can also help kids learn curriculum at different paces and give them vital tech literacy necessary for success in today’s media-saturated world. A recent report in Pediatrics even showed that good media choices can help with social skills. The question is, how do you tell the difference between “good” and “bad” screen time for kids?
How much screen time is too much screen time for kids?
To help answer that question, KRLU, a PBS member station in Austin, Texas has developed a set of guidelines called “Smart Screen Time/La Pantalla Inteligente” to help educators, caregivers, and parents distinguish between what they call “smart” and “silly” screen time. According to their website, the initiative “is about finding good content, using it in smart ways, and knowing when to turn off devices.”
“Parents have expressed concern over what healthy media practices are,” said Dr. Benjamin Kramer, Director of Education Services for KLRU. “The concerns of our community plus our own concerns led us to develop this initiative.”
Smart Screen Time is made up of five guidelines that help parents, caregivers, teachers and ultimately kids themselves, use media in the best possible way. In a nutshell, the guidelines are:
- Distinguishing between silly screen time and smart screen time for kids
- Knowing when to turn the tv/computer/tablet/smartphone off!
- Talking with your kids.
- Watching and playing with your kids.
- Reading every day!
1. Smart vs. silly screen time for kids
Silly screen time is anything that lets a kid totally veg out when he’s consuming it. Things like shoot ‘em up games, or simple dress up apps or TV shows without any educational value. If a kid has that glazed-over look after consuming media, chances are he’s just had some silly screen time.
Smart screen time for kids is engaging. It’s educational. A child’s brain is actively being engaged and stimulated when he’s having smart screen time. There are some games, apps and TV shows that are inherently “smart” choices—like many ABC apps or educational shows—and then there is media that is made “smart” by the way the adults and kids interact with it. (More on that below!)
Dr. Kramer believes that kids know whether their media is smart or silly. “We believe that children from a very young age intuitively know whether they are viewing content that is cognitively engaging or not,” said Dr. Kramer. “Kids know if they’re watching a show that is silly or is making them smarter.”
The role of parents and educators is to help children continue to differentiate between smart and silly screen time. It’s important to sit down with your kids or students to explain the difference and ask them to begin to distinguish the two for themselves. According to Dr. Kramer, kids as young as 2-years-old can have the conversation and begin to make the distinction. You’ll have to have a heavier hand in guiding the little guys towards smart media choices, but even as toddlers they can begin to make the distinction.
2. Knowing when to turn it off
It’s important to know when to turn the media off. Rather than having a strict policy of “30 minutes a day” or something of that nature, the initiative suggests shutting things off if and when a child reaches a “zombie” state.
We may think it’s OK for kids to zone out just like we sometimes do at the end of a busy day, but kids have rapidly developing brains and this “zombie” state isn’t productive. “We’ve adopted this approach that says when your kid becomes a screen zombie (neither fully at rest or fully alert) it’s time to move on to another activity,” said Dr. Kramer. “The research behind that suggests that we want kids who are in rapid stages of brain development to be truly at rest or we want them truly engaged and alert. We want to avoid the zombie state at all costs.”
3. Talking with kids about digital tools
For kids to get the most out of their screen time it’s important for the adults in their lives to engage them. Talking to your kids or students before, during and after their screen time can greatly enhance what they get out of it. “We want to insure that dialogue occurs in front of screens,” said Dr. Kramer. “Learning gets enhanced and solidified when there is a dialog.”
Even simple questions like, “What was that episode of Dinosaur Train about?” or “Why did Martha Speaks use those vocab words?” get a kid’s brain firing. Or, encourage talk by allowing the PBS Kids characters to model communication. All are eager communicators, both about things they know and things they’d like to know
4. Watching and playing with kids
Talking to your kid about what he’s playing or watching is a great way to up the educational ante, but playing or watching with your kid is even better! When parents or teachers are actively involved a child can get much more out of an app, game or show.
For example, take the game The Wild Kratts’ Go Cheetah Go. If left to his own devices, a kid playing will probably just race the cheetah. But if a parent or teacher sits with the child, they can squeeze much more educational value out of the game. Sure, it enables you to just race a cheetah, but the game also allows you to create your own cheetah built for speed. To do this you have to brainstorm about what features a super fast cheetah would have. You can modify it to be quicker or have shorter bursts of speed. Would it have bigger back legs? Shorter legs? Figuring this stuff out helps develop critical thinking, problem solving, and science skills.
Ditto for a game like Minecraft. “If you just hand a kid the game and walk away, he’ll probably spend the whole time just blowing up sheep,” said Dr. Kramer. But if you sit with him and help him to build something cool and complicated the educational opportunities are endless! “My daughter and I once saw a picture of the Eiffel Tower that someone had built in Minecraft,” said Dr. Kramer. “So we sat together and said, ‘Can we do that?’”
If you play a game or app or watch a show with the child, it also informs you as to what your child is watching or doing. “It’s important to understand the nature of the media your kid is consuming,” said Dr. Kramer. If you’re familiar with the app, game or show you’ll know whether it is smart or silly!
5. Read every day
As fun and educational as media can be, the last initiative stresses the importance of turning off all devices and opening a good old-fashioned book! There’s tons of research supporting the importance of reading with your kids—both at school and at home. Reading has been proven to be the best way to assimilate and remember information, build vocabulary and get exposure to new things.
Putting it all together
At KRLU the ultimate goal of screen time for kids is a “transmedia” approach—using different forms of media to reinforce the same key concepts. For example, they’d like to see a child watch an episode of Dinosaur Train to learn about different types of dinosaurs. Then move on to a Dinosaur Train app in which the child can sort the dinosaurs by size and shape and put some of the information they learned from the TV show into practice. And then ultimately the goal is to have the child move off-line and play an imaginary game of dinosaurs using all the cool new facts he’s learned from media. This transmedia approach is the ultimate positive outcome of proper media use.
For teachers, media can be a great jumping off point for serious learning. Using the transmedia approach, you can show your kids a 12-minute episode of a TV show, then move to an app that reinforces the lessons in the TV show, and then extrapolate on the topic in your lesson plan. When used correctly, media can be an amazing tool for learning. You just have to be “smart!”
By Deva Dalporto