Don’t limit screen time for your children — the tech guru’s rules

 
© JOHN ANGERSON FOR THE TIMES

© JOHN ANGERSON FOR THE TIMES

A lot of children have reason to envy ten-year-old Jaeden Davison and his eight-year-old sister, Ocean. They each have an iPhone, tablet and computer, run their own YouTube channels, manage an online shop and their parents aren’t constantly nagging them to get off their screens. In fact, there are no daily screen-time limits (although there are rules).

But then their mother is the architect and computer scientist Elizabeth Tweedale, author of five books on children’s tech and founder of Cypher, ultra-cool “coding camps” at schools in London for 5 to 14-year-olds. She believes that parents need to rethink our approach to children’s screen use. There’s a common pattern, she says: we leave them alone to do what they want, then feel guilty after a couple of hours and bark at them to “get off and do something worthwhile”.

“We are often too focused on raw hours and minutes, rather than what they’re actually doing on the screen,” says Tweedale, 35, who grew up in the US and has lived in Notting Hill, west London, for the past 11 years.

It’s the content rather than the time that’s important. A lot of what they could be doing is really constructive, creative work — and if it’s not, it’s up to us as parents to gently redirect them.
— Elizabeth Tweedale

It’s not a free-for-all in the Davison-Tweedale house: far from it. No gaming is allowed during the school week, homework comes first, and both children have to ask one of their parents before using screens and say what they’re going to be doing on them. If boundaries are overstepped, all screens are locked away for a few days or a week.

There are no set daily screen-time limits, however. If the children are tending to their online shop selling trinkets for their school’s charity, recording videos for their YouTube channels, putting together a wildlife project or using a drawing app, they’re given free rein. But “passive” screen time, such as TV and mindless YouTube surfing, is restricted.

Tweedale says that it’s useful to distinguish between the four types of screen time: creative (making music, art, videos, writing stories or developing apps), communicative (talking to friends on Snapchat or WhatsApp), active (gaming and social-media grazing) and passive (goggling at YouTube or TV). The first shouldn’t be limited, the second generally not unless your child can’t get off social media; gaming will need limits during the week, and passive goggling should have strict limits, she says. “Kids like watching YouTube and at school they talk about it with their friends. It’s hard for them socially if you limit it completely. But having some kind of boundary is helpful, whether that’s ten minutes or one hour.”

Unlike most of us, Tweedale, her husband, Bruce Davison, and the two elder children (the youngest, Rose, is nine months) enjoy screens as a family: they show each other cool apps or programs they’ve found and they push creative screen time. “We are a very tech-heavy household with tons of computers. But we feel that by always having it around and open, it stops it becoming a hidden world, which is the case in many families. Instead everything is done in front of everyone.”

ou have to be a parent in the digital world, just as you are in the real world, she says. It helps if you view screens the same way you view sitting on the carpet and playing cars or Lego with them. “We shouldn’t abandon them to it just because it’s tech and it feels like an alien world to us,” she says.

You’re definitely going to feel behind your child’s understanding in a game or app they love — even I do and I studied computer science and was an avid gamer. But if parents can ask them questions and get involved, it really helps.

She admits that it can be hard to wean an obsessive YouTube goggler on to more creative projects. She has learnt tactics such as encouraging children to start their own YouTube channel so they’re creating content, rather than just absorbing it. You can also steer them towards more interesting content. “If they have to find out about tigers for a school project, get them to use YouTube. The good thing is that if you get them searching times-tables songs, space, nature or whatever, it starts to find its way into their search recommendations. So the chance of them exploring more interesting content greatly increases.”

She feels that tablets are “too easy” and urges parents of children aged eight-plus to move them on to desktop computers, where programs are more complex and you can be more creative.

Tweedale also wants us to nudge our children towards learning to code. “Every child, not just computer scientists, will need to understand computational thinking and coding in the future and how it applies to the world they work in,” she says. She’s trying to reach non-geek children with her coding camps. “I was a geek, and I love the Minecraft-obsessed tech geek kids, but kids like me would learn to code anyway. I want to show a broader range of children that technology can be used for a purpose, rather than for its own sake.”

At the Cypher week-long courses children learn to code, then use it for a creative project, perhaps to design a piece of jewellery or to program a drone to collect ocean plastic. Cypher is in eight schools in London, but has received funding to expand; 45 per cent of participants are girls. “Children are essentially little computer scientists when they are born,” Tweedale says. “We just have to make sure that’s kept alive in them. Parents can make all the difference.”

© 2019 The Times

 
Elizabeth Tweedale