In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics made its famous recommendation that children under the age of two should not have any screen time, and that older kids should be limited to two hours a day. Their understanding of “screen time,” however, implies that whether a child is watching “Sponge Bob Square Pants” or “Sesame Street,” playing “Minecraft” or a new learning app,” tweeting or blogging for school, it is all equally dangerous. Such an understanding of technology is appealing to young parents looking to keep their children safe in a 21st century world that is full of dangerous new technologies because it is so black and white and straight forward, but it is also an oversimplified view of what technology can offer children.
When imposing limitations on children’s screen time, parents – and schools for that matter – need to pay attention to what specifically they are limiting.
The research confirming the positive educational benefits of children’s television, for example, has been pretty conclusive over the last fifteen to twenty years. Most recently, though, researchers have begun to differentiate between entertainment television and educational television. While a study conducted out of the University of Texas finds that children who watch a few hours a week of entertainment television receive lower test scores than those who do not, the results for those who watch educational television are flip flopped. Kids who watch these programs at ages 2-3 – the approximate time that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all – score higher on academic tests than kids who follow the AAP guidelines.
In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education entered into a partnership with PBS to create quality educational television through a program called the Ready to Learn Service. Milton Chen, one of the founders of that program, admits that while moderation is key, the benefits of this type of screen time to kids is simply too evident to limit entirely. “I’m a big supporter of media technology and I do agree that kids spend far too much time with television and other media,” Chen says. “But I come out on the side that specific television programs and experiences can very much support literacy.”
And again, there is real research to back up such claims. A study reported in Education Week shows that the PBS show “Word World” improves vocabulary and word recognition. This same study confirms that watching the show “Between the Lions” leads to “significant gains in students’ understanding of how letters combine to make words, as well as of the purpose of the printed word.”
By far, the gold standard with regards to children’s educational programming is “Sesame Street.” Last year, in order to determine if the show was having its intended academic impact, producers consulted an independent third party to review their own research. The independent study finds that the academic difference between students who watch “Sesame Street” as a child and those who do not is comparable to the difference between those who attend preschool and those who do not.
This positive impact of screen time is simply staggering, and parents would surely find it ludicrous if the AAP recommended that children not attend preschool.
But there is another kind of screen time becoming more prevalent today. As school districts across the country look to develop a 1:1 student to device ratio, providing all students with tablets or computers to use both in school and at home, many parents have become rightfully concerned about the amount of time children spend on their devices. Many even cite the AAP recommendations, not realizing how oversimplified they are. It is again important, however, to make a distinction between gaming and social media apps (though they too have an academic benefit – more on that in another blog…) and educational ones.
Rosie Flewitt studies early childhood development in London, and her research into the use of tablets in the classroom shows that they can help engage children who struggle to learn through the use of traditional print media and even increase participation among students who tend to shy away from talking during class.
A study of the reading habits of 3-5 year olds conducted by the National Literacy Trust finds a seven percentage point increase in the number of kids who say they enjoy reading when traditional print media is supplemented with digital e-books. The study points out that enjoyment is a key factor in predicting a child’s future success, and even openly wonders if these findings could be “the first indicator of the benefit of technology to young children’s outcomes.”
Participating in online discussion groups and web logs is another positive form of screen time that the AAP is suggesting should be limited. This is despite the fact that research shows “students using the technology…benefited from that use through increased learning, as demonstrated by stronger course performance.” Furthermore, studies into the effect of blogging on students shows that kids become exposed to more diverse points of view and become more engaged in their writing when they know they have a wider audience in their peers than just an instructor.
Additionally, by allowing students the opportunity to collaborate and discuss classroom topics easily and conveniently in a way in which they are used to communicating, blogging leads to an increase in reading comprehension. There is also evidence that the use of blogs and social media lead to an increase in students’ GPA. And despite the perception that internet based communication leads to students becoming isolated from their peers, the use of classroom blogs has actually been proven to create stronger academic bonds between learners and promote more student-centered classrooms.
The recommendations made by the American Academy of Pediatrics oversimplify a very complex topic and have caused many parents to unnecessarily limit, and in some cases deny all together, their children’s access to tools that will enhance and improve their education. While a child’s exposure to inappropriate television shows, violent video games, and social media must be closely monitored, the AAP overlooks the many researched and documented benefits of screen time.
The problem with screen time is when it becomes a passive activity. That’s when it can lead to a brain drain. But when screen time produces active engagement in an educational topic, teachers and parents should not seek to limit that kind of screen time. If they blindly follow such black and white guidelines, they are denying children of a chance at success.