Screens are everywhere these days, and many parents worry that their children are spending too much time looking at screens rather than interacting with the world around them, but how much screen time is too much? It would be nice if there was a simple, straight-forward set of rules for parents to follow, but there isn’t. This be because, unlike television, where setting a strict limit is both relatively easy to set and enforce, screens these days are much more pervasive, and rather than simply being a delivery system for programmes, they are interactive multi-media interfaces that can be used for a myriad of different things, and they are also a lot more mobile than they used to be. This means that rather than just treating all screen time as the same, you need to take into consideration exactly what the screen is being used for.
In line with this, the American Association Pediatrics recommends that children under eighteen months shouldn’t be exposed to digital media, while those between two and five should be limited to one hour a day, and older children shouldn’t have more than two hours a day. But, as they also point out, these limits should only apply to screen time that is solely for entertainment purposes. Screen time that serves other purposes, therefore, should not necessarily be limited. As this report from the Mayo Clinic outlines, this means that parents need to take a pro-active approach to limiting screen time, and consider not just time in front of a screen, but exactly how the screen is being used. This is because the main negative impacts of screen time are its association with a sedentary lifestyle and the passive, anti-social nature of their use, and while this was always true of televisions and desktop computers, but it’s not necessarily true of today’s much more mobile and sociable technology.
In keeping with this advice, we here at How To Raise A Happy Genius see screens as an important and essential part of both modern childhood, and modern parent-child relationships. This means that screens shouldn’t solely be used as passive babysitters to occupy your child when you need to keep them quiet for a few minutes. Instead, screen use should be something that is actively integrated into daily life. Yes, this takes a bit of effort, especially for parents who aren’t particularly tech-savvy, but the benefits will more that repay the effort, both in terms of preparing your child for their adult life, and in the bond that you will build with your child through shared experiences. This is because, with a bit of thought and effort, screen time can be turned into high-quality parent-child time, rather than being time your child spends slumped in on a sofa, passively watching a screen.
So how can this be done? Well, it’s quite simple: the problem with too much screen time is not the screen itself, but what it’s being used for. As a result, you need to think of screens not as a passive technology to simply be watched, but rather as a tool which you can actively use to help your child develop core life skills, teach them life lessons and spend time together. For example, spending time with your child as they use screens provides the perfect environment for teaching your child about things like online safety, and how to use the internet without getting themselves into trouble, and this is an essential life lesson for children to learn in the modern world. Similarly, you can use screens to help your child learn how to write, read, count, do maths, how to use and develop strategies to solve problems, how to search for information online, how to assess whether information is reliable, how to cook, how to navigate, how to repair things, and even how to create webpages and write computer codes, all while having a bit of fun. Really, the only limit to how you can use screens to teach your child important life lessons and core skills is your own imagination.
To show you how this can be done, I’ve put together a list of ten activities that will allow your child to get as much as they can out of their screen time (although remember that they should be allowed to have some time just to mess around and play games on their own, too!).
- Make the most of educational apps: There’s a plethora of educational apps available, many of which are sufficiently fun that your child won’t even know that they’re learning while they are using them. One of my favourites of these is Math vs Mummies, where the player has to solve maths problems to allow them to shoot approaching mummies. This is a great way for your child to help your child develop their maths skills, especially if you play it with them so you can both help them out when they get stuck, and praise them when they do well. Other apps can be used to help your child learn their alphabet, how to write, for learning to read and count, and even for learning a foreign language. As a result, an hour or so doing a bit of reading and searching out the best apps that are currently available will pay dividends by allowing you to provide your kids with screen time that they will both enjoy and learn from.
- Play a game with them: Even non-educational apps and games can be beneficial. However, it’s important that you don’t simply let your child play games on their own. Instead, you need to play games with them. If they have a favourite game, they’ll enjoy explaining it to you and watching you as you take turns to play it. Believe it or not, this is actually a great way to interact with your child in a meaningful way, and to build a close relationship with them because you’re sharing an activity they like with them (rather than having you impose what you wish to do on them). This is especially important with older children, and you may be surprised how much they’ll open up about other things while playing a game with you. While you can do this with any game, some games can also be used to help your child develop problem-solving skills, and the use of these games should be encouraged. For example, open-ended strategy games such as Plants vs Zombies, are prefect for teaching your child a variety of core life skills based around problem-solving, while games such as Minecraft help your child learn about how the world around them works.
- Carry out an experiment: There are many web pages, videos and YouTube channels available devoted to showing you how to carry out experiments. These can be as simple as creating your own battery or a basic electrical circuit, while others will be much more complicated, and these are always fun to carry out with your child. However, when doing this, it’s important to make sure that your child is in charge of selecting what you do, rather than it being something you impose on them. This means they need to be in charge of finding an experiment that they want to do. This has the added benefit that it will help them learn how to find things on the internet using search engines. Once they have found an experiment they want to do, then encourage them to make a list of the items they’ll need to carry it out, search for the items around your house, work out where they can get anything they can’t find, and then track them down (or, indeed, purchase them online). With the required items all assembled, it’s then time to do the actual experiment. When doing this, make sure you let your child take the lead, even if it means that they make a mistake (unless, of course, it’s a dangerous one!), as this will help them learn how to follow instructions correctly, and why this is important.
- Find a recipe and make something nice to eat: As with experiments, there are many places on the internet where you can find recipes, and this is a great way to help your child develop their cooking skills, and learn about nutrition. Again, it’s important that your child takes the lead here, in terms of finding and selecting a recipe they’d like to do, creating a shopping list of ingredients, purchasing them, measuring them out and following the recipe. This provides great experience in cooking, following instructions, and creating (and sticking to) a shopping list. In addition, you can take this a step further and provide your child with a budget with which to shop for ingredients, which is a great way to introduce them to financial management and budgeting. If you’re looking for a simple and fun recipe to start with, then making your own pizza is always a good place to start.
- Take a trick photograph: Many mobile devices are equipped with high quality cameras, and you can use these to take a variety of trick photos that your child will love, both taking and being part of. These can include photos of your child (or you) apparently levitating, playing around with perspective, sleevefacing, making your child appear headless, and many other optical illusions. These are not only fun to take, but they’re also a great way for your child to learn that photographs can be manipulated to show things are aren’t necessarily real (which is important for them to understand if they are not to be over-impacted by the many more or less misleading body images which they are bombarded with every day).
- Take part in a citizen science project: Citizen science projects are ones which use interested amateurs to help scientists collect and/or analyse very large amounts of data that they wouldn’t be able to do themselves because it would be too time-consuming. Nowadays, there are many citizen science projects, both large and small, that almost anyone, including children, can take part in, so why not do this with your child? If you do, you can spend an afternoon, searching for aliens, counting galaxies, watching for sun spots, exploring the moon and many, many other things. The secret here is to let them decide what project they’d like to join, and then help them to take part. As always, remember to let them take the lead, rather than simply taking over the project yourself, otherwise they’ll quickly lose interest. You can find lists of current citizen science projects on the Citizen Science Alliance website or, alternatively you can Google “Citizen Science Projects For Kids”.
- Plan a day out: It wouldn’t seem like a day out can be a way of spending screen time with your child, but it is. The key here is to make them part of the planning process. With the aid of a computer, smart phone or tablet, and a little help from you, your child can pick a day out for you to do together, plan the route you’re going to take, work out how long it will take to get there, print out maps with directions on it, and decide on what they might like to see. Not only will your child learn lots of useful skills in doing this, but it will increase the fun they have (as long as you let them take charge). While you are on your day out, they can also take photos, record the locations where the photos were taken, make a video diary, and then at the end of the day, create a digital scrapbook, collage or montage of the day out which can be shared on social media.
- Watch a TED talk: Ted talks provide you with the opportunity to hear experts in a wide variety of fields talk enthusiastically, and in relatively plain English, about what they’ve learned or discovered. While they might not be suitable for younger children, for those aged ten and over, they are a great way for them to learn not only about the world, but about possible careers that might be available to them to pursue. They also serve as a useful starting point for discussions, as well as being a great way to learn more about what interests your child. You can find a directory of TED talks here, or you can access them through a dedicated app, which you can find here.
- Design a t-shirt: Designing a t-shirt might not seem like something you can do as part of screen time, but you can. You can use smart phone or tablet cameras to take photographs to put on t-shirts, editing software to manipulate your images, design apps (like Powerpoint) to create designs, and once you have an image your child would like to use, you can visit one of the many sites that allows you to print your own design onto a t-shirt to get the t-shirt itself made up (the one I like to use is called Spreadshirt). And if you don’t like t-shirts, then there’s a myriad of other products you can have your design on, including phone covers, bags, bags and many more, using through the same printing services. You can find out more about how to do this here.
- Learn how to write computer code: In the modern world, it’s important that children learn how computers work, even if they aren’t planning to go into a career in computing, and the best way to do this is to get them to play around with coding. This may seem a bit daunting for most parents, but luckily there are plenty of online and app-based resources to help you with this. A good place to start is with Barclay’s code playground, where children (and their parents!) can start learning how to use coding to make things move around the screen. After that, you can check out this article for seven more ways for your child to learn coding, Tynker.com (where your child can learn how to do things like modifying Minecraft and designing their own games), or visit the Hour of Code website.
With these ideas in mind, how do you implement a strategy where this active screen time is integrated into the more typical passive screen time or game-playing? Well, for younger kids, the best way is to instigate a rule that screens are only available for specific activities at specific times. This means that screen usage can be closely monitored, but it still leaves you the opportunity to offer them choices of what activities they wish to do at any particular time. For example, you could offer them the choice of planning a day out or looking for an experiment for you to do together.
With older children, it’s not as easy to manage screen time in this way, and it may feel a little invasive. Instead, for them, you can use parental controls (either those built into your device or a third-party one that you can install yourself) to set time limits on when and for how long individual apps can be used. For example, Funamo (available for Android devices) can be used to set the time of day when specific apps can be used, and also the total length of time they can be used for each day. This allows your child to have the freedom to use a screen for educational/acceptable purposes whenever they want without allowing them to spend all their time playing their latest gaming obsession or hanging out on their favourite social network. It may also be an idea to set a rule that screens are only to be used in communal areas of your home, rather than in your child’s bedroom. This allows you to monitor exactly how your child is using their screen time, as well as being a good way to make suire that their not using their technology for anything they shouldn’t!
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.