Few topics can divide a room full of parenting experts as quickly as this one: how much time should children spend looking at their screens?
NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz, a three-time winner of the Education Writers Association’s National Award for Education Reporting, helps parents consider all sides of this debate with The Art of Screen Time (Public Affairs, Jan.). Kamenetz consulted scores of researchers studying children and screens and combed through decades of research into the effects of television on the developing brain. She also interviewed more than 500 parents, getting a realistic view of the varied ways families handle everyday device usage.
Your advice to parents puts a digital twist on Michael Pollan’s food rules: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.” How does this play out in the real world?
“Enjoy screens” is really about emphasizing the powerful, positive uses of media. Media enables us to express ourselves, to be creative, to learn about the world around us and to connect with others.
“Not too much” is good advice for all of us. There are some huge virtues to offline time. Your kids need to move around, they need to run outside, they need to be engaged with family and friends.
“Mostly with others” means if you want feel better about the time your kids spend with media, get in there with them. Figure out ways that you can both enjoy it.
You distinguish between solo and shared experiences on digital screens. Why should parents think about this?
All the experts are starting to pay more attention to the importance of sharing media and avoiding solo use. The positive effects of media are amplified, and the negative effects are diminished, when adults make a concerted effort to get involved in kids’ media use.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the paradigm of background television. In the 21st century, children can be essentially exposed to some media all the time, wherever they go. That has strongly been shown to be detrimental. There is a huge drop, 90% in some studies, in conversations between parents and children when the television is on in the background.
What about video chat?
Video chat is more about people talking to each other. The American Academy of Pediatrics is perfectly comfortable saying that you can Skype with grandparents from the delivery room with your newborn. Even though it’s mediated through a screen, they feel that the social interaction happening there is worthwhile. It’s more like a live interaction and less like watching a video.
What do you say to parents concerned about the time their kids spend with video games such as Minecraft?
You can play Minecraft alongside your kids. You can have them teach you the game. You can enter into the fandom with them. Because the Minecraft phenomenon is also about YouTube videos, costumes, and conferences, there are all kinds of ways to be involved and help your kid extend their interests. But, that said, there are also times when you may need to set limits on something that is as supercompelling as Minecraft. It’s very easy to fall into a huge spiral with video games. Your kids need your assistance and scaffolding so they can figure out their own best practices and balance.