4 types of screen time


As parents, we are bombarded with ‘good advice’: Don’t let your kids eat this, eat more of that, spend quality time with them, make sure they run a mile a day…. One recurrent piece of advice is about screen time - and generally we’re told it shouldn’t be very long each day - but what exactly do we mean by ‘it’ - screen time?
It’s useful to identify the four different types of screen time - and whether they have a generally positive or potentially negative effect on our children.

1. Creative screen time

The most positive of screen times. This is about making music, creating digital art, making videos. It can be a collaborative or single creator, but it is genuinely developing skills and crafting something that has the potential to be shared or performed. The substance of what is made is important, the quality of the software and learning the skills to use it help the enjoyment. This is an almost limitless area for learning - and will become significantly more relevant to the future generation.

2. Communicative screen time

This is a really important. The use of email has almost wiped out letter writing, but it is often poorly used and under-estimated. The rules of manners, grammar and structure are no less relevant in emails - and could save many misunderstandings. FaceTime and Skype have been great for keeping in touch with Grandmas and members of the family they may not see every day.

The visual link gives a stronger sense of being in the presence of someone. Other apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat allow kids to keep in touch and compare notes (sometimes, ‘So what are you wearing?’ but sometimes more usefully ‘What is the history homework?’)

3. Active screen time

This is summed up as gaming and searching. Games cover a wide range of subjects, styles, age appropriateness and effects. Violent games are always negative for kids. Some games do have the benefits: ‘hand/eye coordination’, some develop logic or actually get physical, like Wii Tennis.

Searching can be for homework, a useful task based activity, or ‘social grazing’ on Instagram for instance. Viewing a constant stream of Instagram posts with the associated FOMO (fear of missing out) can absorb teenagers for a surprising amount of time.

4. Passive screen time

This is watching TV. Something we have come to accept as a background activity and relaxation for adults. But good television can be highly influential, beneficial and worth seeking out and watching together eg Blue Planet, Shakespeare, Horrible Histories, Bake Off and Springwatch.

Some programmes have little benefit to kids and they’d be better off playing with Lego, holding a dolls’ tea party or kicking a ball around. Some educational programmes have positive stimulation - but the TV should never be a babysitter/pacifier. Essentially, most of the time, the viewer is not being asked to interact or engage intellectually with the content.

There are positives

• Building modern skills - future proofing our kids - digital skills are essential for pretty much all future careers - learning the skills of communication and coding now will equip kids to succeed in the future - a future that none of us can predict precisely

• Digital citizenship - being fluent in media and communication skills enables our children to be engaged members of the community - friends, family, current affairs, politics

• Education - learning and creativity are strong benefits afforded by the right sort of screen time - and can be found in different measures in all four types of screen time

• Finding a like-minded group - occasionally finding friends who have the same outlook on life/ interests can make young people feel less alone

And negatives

• Behavioural issues - too much screen time - or the wrong kind - can lead to problems with attention and concentration

• Childhood obesity - it’s a time bomb and well reported - being on screen can deter kids from getting out and getting active

• Anti-social behaviour - there are incidents of bullying online - this can occur both in active screen time - for instance online games, and in communicative screen time where kids can suffer from negative, harmful and upsetting comments

• Loneliness - it has been reported that children can feel a sense of isolation or low selfconfidence when they see ‘everyone else having fun’ - as mature adults we may be able to understand the hyperbole around Instagram posts - but it’s very hard for young minds to process in a balanced way

How long is too long?

Our responsibility is to work with the information we are given to best nurture our kids, and to pay attention to how kids behave during and after they’ve been ‘on screen’. Their individual and sometimes nuanced reaction can really help us to build a plan going forward to best create a positive approach to screen time. Scientists and paediatricians agree that children under 18 months to 2 years should have no screen time. It is believed that technology has no positive role to play in the development of a baby’s brain which is hardwired to learn language, emotions and how to regulate them. Up to 5 years old we should aim to keep it down to 1 hour a day, and from 6-18 non-educational, leisure screen time should be no more than two hours a day. Ofcom in the UK estimates that the average 3-4-year-old spends three hours a day in front of a screen. This rises to four hours for ages 5-7, 4.5 hours by ages 8-11, and 6.5 hours for teenagers.

What can parents do?

1. Be a parent in the digital world - just the way you are in the real world. Help your kids to navigate the digital media, talk, listen and share experiences, let them be part of your screen time and vice versa - for example ask them about their games, ask to learn how to play, create something together, use your screen time to find a recipe or instructions for a craft project and make it together, FaceTime Granny together, have a family movie night so that you share and discuss even in ‘passive’ mode, talk about technology and screens you see when you’re out and about together

2. Lead by example - set up boundaries that apply to you and the children, have digital-free times, or digital-free areas, set curfews for phone and screen usage, put all your phones in a basket for ‘off grid hour’

3. Make a family media plan - a guide has been developed by the American Academy of Paediatrics here - make sure there’s time for physical activity, sleep, family time, talking and eating together

4. Don’t over-limit - OK this may sound bonkers but we do need to get real about screen time and what it means - at school kids may be on their iPads doing really constructive, creative work, there may be useful research they need to do for homework or to pursue a hobby, and there is no real limit to the amount of screen time for our types 1 and 2 - Creative and Communicative - within the capacity to avoid eye-strain and with the caveat that time is used responsibly and monitored. If we over-limit screen time kids may be unprepared for education where exams may be on computers, touch typing is a valuable asset and navigating the digital world is a positive benefit

To conclude - be aware of what your child is doing on a screen, and be hyper-sensitive to the moods and behaviour post-screen time. Ensure you are being realistic in the context of the modern world, and discount productive useful screen time from their daily limit ie creative, communicative, homework, research - when genuine. Your mantra for screen time may become: Measured, Monitored, Meaningful.

©2018 Elizabeth Tweedale
Published in Absolutely Education - Autumn/Winter 2018

Elizabeth Tweedale