In a device-driven world, the screen holds infinite power to confuse and frustrate parents, who are increasingly hearing mixed messages about its impact. Screen time is evil! But also: Technology is vital to kids’ future achievement and a necessary part of their education.
What’s a parent to make of this contradiction?
Unchecked and unfiltered, screen-time can be dangerous for kids. It has clear health implications, in that it can affect sleep, or prevent kids from engaging in physical activity, thereby contributing to India’s rising childhood obesity rates. It can exacerbate mental health issues, and perpetuate social isolation. And studies have shown that young children who are screen users exhibit higher rates of aggression. Online apps and games, which are created with the specific intent to attract and hook their users, are particularly addictive for kids.
Then there are the more insidious effects of digital media use: The fact that young children don’t have the ability to spot the differences between advertisements, or sponsored content, and “real” content. They lack the cognitive sophistication and experience to think critically about what they’re seeing and evaluate its veracity. And they are keenly observing and rapidly absorbing the social and moral messages they are seeing on those screens, leaving them vulnerable to picking up and perpetuating stereotypes and biases.
But consider this: There’s nothing inherently bad about screen-time, especially in moderation.
Increasingly, the global expert consensus is that screen-time’s impact — and whether it will ultimately harm a child or help her — is determined by content and context. Content is about what, specifically, kids are watching. Context is about how they’re engaging with what they’re watching.
Make no mistake about it, there is a wide range of content being marketed to kids, and most of it is junk. Don’t be fooled by the meaningless “educational!” sticker on apps, toys, and shows, meant to lure well-meaning parents into a purchase. “Edu-tainment” for kids is a $6 billion industry in India, and sellers of that content are driven by finding and keeping new viewers. One kids’ content juggernaut openly publishes its research on what drives its content creation: The colours, characters, and plots that keep kids most entertained (that is, hooked); not, for example, what is going to help them learn.
In a nutshell, good content is age-appropriate, free of stereotypes and violence, created with developmental goals in mind rather than commercial concerns; it promotes inclusivity, and enhances problem-solving and empathy in inter-personal relationships. Filtering out the quality content from the junk takes time and effort (the irony being, of course, that most parents reach for the iPad specifically when they don’t have time and can’t put in the effort).
The second component of truly educational media experiences is context, which is shorthand for “iPads are not parents”.Kids’ content is most beneficial when it’s accompanied by an active discussion or when it is supporting an activity offline. In other words, when there is a level of parental explanation and mentorship around what kids are seeing and hearing. A zombie-kid staring at a certain porcine family for hours on end? Not good. A kid who teaches herself to play guitar by watching YouTube videos? Awesome.
Devices and digital media are a godsend for busy parents who need a bit of a break from parenting. That’s reasonable, and fair. We’ve all been there. But let’s not call it educational. Devices, alone, are not going to teach our children empathy, compassion, morals, values, manners, or even math.
But on those days when parents have the energy to discuss the migration of the monarch butterfly, and then look up a video of it online, or when an episode of Galli Galli Sim Sim can spark a conversation about consent — those are the moments when technology and kids’ media support and enable learning. We are lucky to live in a time when we have these tools, now we just have to learn how to use them.