There has been growing concern among parents and educators concerning screen time. After some research suggested that children’s rule-breaking behaviors can be associated with various types of screen time, some parents have classified everything on the screen as bad and not permissible for kids. 

The question now is; Is the problem just about screen time, or could there be more to it? Let’s begin by examining the concept of screen time. 

Screen time and engagement

Screen time refers to the time at which children are exposed to onscreen activities such as television viewing, time spent on a computer or gaming consoles, and the use of smartphones and tablets. It is the sum of all the activities done in front of the screen. 

Even though the concept of screen time has been around for quite some time, there have been several misconceptions and debates around screens. Even back in time, when some families didn’t have TV sets at home, they could still find themselves in front of screens in local libraries, community centers, or even in houses of friends. Within these times, there has ever been some form of engagement with content on screen. To lump screens as totally bad is essentially like saying that digital engagement and technology are bad in its entirety.

Spending a long time on the screen can result in sedentary behaviors among some young ones, but that does not mean there’s nothing beneficial with onscreen technology.  Some parents have attributed certain problem behaviors of children to screen time, and such have concluded that all screen engagement is bad for kids.  If this is to be accepted as true, it would mean there’s nothing good about digital engagement and technology for kids. 

To determine if screen engagement is totally bad for children, we would need to examine what screens have to offer in the first place. Let’s begin by breaking down digital screen engagement as it affects kids and teenagers into two categories: (a) productivity-based and (b) entertainment and leisure-based. 

  • PRODUCTIVITY BASED

Productivity based screen time involves educational, interactive programs with learning goals that encourage participation. Examples include what our kids are doing in the classrooms, their viewing experiences, doing homework and research, keeping track of schedules, knowing when their next game or match is coming up, etc. These are meant to engage the child’s mind and body in a way that involves more than just watching.

  •  ENTERTAINMENT AND LEISURE BASED

This involves engagement in screen time activities for the sake of fun or relaxation. Examples include; watching video games, YouTube channels, confluent servers, streaming channels, etc. 

It’s important to note that these two kinds of screen engagement have overlapped on many different occasions. For instance, many teenagers into gaming may be doing it both for fun and as a profession or business. So, irrespective of the purpose of engaging in screen time activities, there is the attendant engagement. 

So before we rightly condemn or excuse screen time, we need to find answers to the following questions:

  • When your kids are engaging on-screen, are they talking to their friends in the process?
  •  Are they engaging on social media, or they’re just winding down and scrolling? 
  •  Are they simply creating an experience that gives them some outlet? 
  • Is the content they’re engaging with on-screen detrimental to the family’s’ established values?

Each of those cases would be handled both by merit and according to context.  A survey conducted by Pew Research in 2018 reports that 95% of teenagers have access to smart devices. Out of this number, 45% of them were online throughout 95% of their whole day. Experience has shown that if adults were to be surveyed in the same way, the results wouldn’t differ. So to presume there’s no genuine need for screen time limits would simply be going overboard. 

What’s in a screen? For most teens and tweens it’s the door to their social world.

Engagement and time management

From the discussion above, we can see that it’s not just the screen that matters; it’s about the engagement. Finding out what’s happening behind the screen, the devices used, the activities going on, and how they are being absorbed are the real issues that need to be addressed. 

For instance, if someone is viewing video games and gets depressed in the process, it may not be the video games that caused the problem; they could have been depressed before playing the game. We must get to the root before we begin solving the problem. 

Whereas the role of social media and the gaming principles applied to them would be a discussion for another day, let’s step away from the pathology we’ve so far applied to screen time and give a little attention to cultural direction. Since we as adults and parents have been using our devices every day in our lives for some meaningful engagement, it, therefore, means that screens are important. They’ve become part of our living. So it’s not just about screen time; it’s more about time management online. If that’s the problem you’re dealing with within your home, it’s important then that we use a holistic approach to address the entire issues involved. 

  • Determine specific activities for which your kids need those devices. 
  • Understand how long it takes for them to accomplish a task and how long it takes them to log off the screen. 
  • Could it be they’re not just as fast as you are, or you’re just not comfortable?
  • Be sure not to misinterpret how long it takes to get tasks done just because you don’t do the same tasks.
  • And ensure that the content they’re engaging in is not detrimental to the family’s values.

Resolving these problems remains an open discussion. While it’s OK for children to interact with screens for entertainment and leisure, doing so for educational reasons will be more intellectually stimulating and, therefore, need not be classified as ‘bad.’ Meantime, let’s stop chastising screens and start looking at the engagement behind the screens.

One last tip from us: give your children a reasonable measure of onscreen activities that involve positive interactions with others, and this would shield them from the negative effects of excessive screen time. 

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