“Media are so ubiquitous that we need to start thinking about them not as something good or evil, but part of the environment in which we raise our kids,” Rich says. “We need to think about it like the air we breathe or the water we drink.” And then he delivers a more pointed criticism: “We need to get involved and stop using it as a babysitter.”
Get involved? For many parents, screen time means the opposite — it’s a chance to step back from the demands of our children. But Rich says understanding your child’s media choices can turn technology into a learning opportunity.
That’s what happened when Collette Loll Marvin, who teaches at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and is a mother of two, stopped imposing limits on screen time for her son, Quinn, 14.
“Quinn has always been drawn to screens and technology — ever since he was 3 years old,” she says.
Marvin and her husband, a technology executive, spent years questioning their parenting when it came to Quinn’s television or computer time. It was not until they loosened the reins on at-home media, she says, that they saw its potential.
“I saw that for him it was an interest like sports or music, and that he was using technology as a tool for creativity,” Marvin explains.
Now a freshman at the Lab School, a school for kids with learning difficulties, Quinn is thriving. Marvin says increased screen time has helped him academically and socially. He has turned technology into a serious pursuit, building his own computer.
But at what age do we begin to experiment with technology as an educational tool? That’s where the early research gets thorny.
At Georgetown University’s Children’s Digital Media Center, director Sandra Calvert, a psychology professor, oversees studies into the “video deficit,” the hypothesis that toddlers learn better from observing behaviors in real life than on a screen.
In one study, researchers showed 21-month-old children a video of the familiar “Sesame Street” character Elmo nesting plastic cups. They showed another group the same video featuring an unfamiliar character called DoDo nesting the cups. Finally, they gave the cups to a control group of toddlers who had not watched any videos. The children who watched Elmo nest the cups outperformed those in the other two groups, evidence that toddlers can learn conceptual information from videos featuring familiar characters like Elmo.
In a similar, ongoing study, the center is using iPads to measure the strength of “parasocial” (or intimate, one-sided) relationships children have with on-screen characters and how we can leverage these in education.
“Twenty-first-century literacy is dependent on screens, and our early findings are promising,” Calvert says. “Tuning it out is a missed opportunity to open up a wonderful world of exploration that involves learning with your child.”
Maybe so, but there remain many informed parents who choose to cut out media entirely. For some, it’s out of fear that research might someday show new technology damages nascent brains.
For others, it’s a personal choice. Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, doesn’t allow his children — 5 and 7 — any at-home screen time. Willingham says that as a result, his children play well together and are quick to entertain themselves.
That said, Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist, is not sounding any alarm bells. He notes that his family’s stance on screen time was not inspired by research.
“We made this decision because we like a peaceful house,” Willingham says.
Until research offers clarity, experts agree the best thing we can do is find a way to manage screen time that works best for our families, and ensure it’s being used judiciously. And we need to be mindful that when our children are in front of a screen, they are not climbing trees, painting pictures, caring for baby dolls or building towers with blocks.
“For every hour our kids spend on the screen, they should spend at least one squeezing mud between their toes in the back yard,” Rich says. “An iPad can’t dig a hole in the sand or build a fort out of sticks and mud.”
Molly Knight Raskin is a freelance writer.