Time to add some nuance to the phrase "screen time"

This post is borne out of the occasional frustrating conversations I’ve had with other parents at my kids school.

I am part of the PAC at our elementary (k-5) school, and we have just begun talking about adding WiFi to our school as a number of teachers want to use more technology in the classroom. But there is resistance among some parents about technology use in schools, and often this hesitancy is hidden behind the coded phrase “screen time”.

You see, “screen time” is bad. “Screen time” is why they don’t want technology in the classroom. Too much “screen time”. Battles with kids at home about “screen time”. The evil “screen time”.

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone use the phrase ‘screen time” and mean it in a positive way.

But what does that phrase really mean? What is hiding behind the words? It’s a question I am beginning to ask more and more when people brush aside the entire spectrum of technology use with the generic “too much screen time” argument. Well, what do you mean by “screen time”?

Do you mean “too much reading books”? Because that happens on a screen. When is the last time you told your kid to stop reading a book?

Or do you mean “too much making music”? Because in our house (and in many other places) making music is just as likely to occur using a screen with a physical keyboard hooked up to a computer as it is with a guitar. The screen is an important piece in the music making arsenal in our house.

Or do you mean “too many YouTube videos”? Well, in the past 2 weeks my kids have watched their fair share of YouTube videos, including a number of music & cat videos. But they have also watched videos on how to do arts & crafts projects like create stuff on a rainbow loom and draw bat wings (my son is currently a bit obsessed with bats thanks to recently reading the Kenneth Opel SilverWing series). My son has also watched soccer videos to pick up some new skills for his upcoming camp. And my daughter loves watching Mythbusters clips, learning to debunk popular myths and develop some critical thinking skills.

My son learning how to use the rainbow loom via YouTube videos created by other kids

Or do you mean “too much learning about the world”? One of my sons favorite activities on the screen is to cruise the world in Google Earth. Especially Japan. He has begun to use Google Streetview to get a better understanding of what life in a Japanese city might be like. Today he was virtually flying through the Grand Canyon as his grandfather is currently in Arizona.

Or do you mean “too much game playing”? Admittedly, we play a lot of games in our house in front of screens. My son plays Minecraft. He loves building. When he was interested in Kung Fu, he built a dojo in Minecraft. When we read that Silverwing series I mentioned earlier, he built locations from the book in Minecraft, including his interpretation of the home base of the bats, a place called Tree Haven. It was the biggest tree on the landscape. He said it was also useful as a wayfinding device. He could fly away from his island and could always find his way back, all he had to do was look for the biggest tree on the horizon.

For him, building in Minecraft is an extension of what he is curious about in his life. He reads or sees something, then he builds. And in the process, he gains a better understanding of what it was that he read or saw. He also does this with Lego, but Minecraft is what he loves building in.

I play World of Warcraft with my kids (and they only play when I am there with them). We work together as a team in the virtual world to solve complex quests. We have fun – as a family – solving problems and supporting each other. How is this worse than sitting down as a family on a Friday night and playing Rummoli at the kitchen table (which we also do)? Simply because there is a screen involved? We’re spending time together as a family.

I loved that both kids felt “famous” when they had leveled up enough that their characters become visible in the WoW community.

WoWWho cares that there are screens? In fact, through our participation in the virtual world of WoW, I am able to pass on valuable lessons in digital literacy and participating in virtual communities – what to look out for, who to trust, how to interact with other characters and remind them there are real people at the other end of those avatars. And be prepared to deal with jerks I wish my kids teachers would be doing the same. Modelling for my kids what it is like to participate in a virtual community, showing my kids how to behave in a discussion forum, what appropriate commenting is, and how to learn from the network. But I digress….

One final point about games and kids. Kids are supposed to play games. It is what being a kid is about. I sometimes think that, as parents, we are much too demanding on our kids time and ensuring that everything they does has some higher & grander purpose. It doesn’t. Kids should be allowed to waste time. That is what being a kid is all about. Sometimes play can just be fun or mindless or silly or diverting. There is nothing wrong with that.

What about the argument that screens make you unhealthy? Well, this comes down to balance (as really, most of this post comes down to balance). My son plays soccer, my daughter dances. As a family we ride bikes as our main form of transportation. There is a trampoline in the back yard. So, we have no shortage of physical exercise opportunities.

In addition, my daughter has a FitBit and spends her days working towards the goal of 10,000 steps. She often checks her screen to see how she is doing. It keeps her motivated. My daughter and I also dance together with the Wii – in front of a big screen in our living room.

My daughter and I getting our heart rate up.

Or maybe you mean “too much expressing yourself artistically”? My son has taken his passion for bats and those previously mentioned Kenneth Opel books and is using Word to write his own sequel to the series because he was unhappy with how the books ended and left him hanging. He is just learning to spell, and the auto spell check in Word underlines misspelled words and helps him see where his mistakes are. Do I stop this because he is doing on a screen? How is it different than if he was doing this on paper with a pencil? Would I stop him from writing a book because he is spending too much time with a pencil and paper?

Or my daughter, who is learning to draw and do art on a tablet. Why is that worse than doing it on paper with a pencil (which she does as well)? In fact, both my kids float from screen to “real life” as if the distinction is meaningless. Because it is.

Or maybe you mean “too much time with their friends”? Well, my kids have virtual email pen pals. Their virtual pen pals have lost grandparents, won sports competitions, they have shared artwork and learned what life is like in their part of the world. In short, my kids are learning to have empathy for people they have never met. Again, they are learning there are real people at the other end of the keyboard. How is this different than if it were paper letters? Why is this worse simply because it involves a screen?

So, I think it is time to banish the term “screen time” when we have conversations about the role of technology in our lives. In my experience, it is often used as a wet blanket; a catch-all designed to stop important conversations before they have a chance to happen. It is time for us to begin to have a more nuanced conversation about what that term means, and unpack the meaning hiding behind the term. What do people really mean when they say they are worried about “screen time” in schools? Because in the end, I don’t think it is really the screens people are worried about. It is how those screens are used. And that is a conversation we cannot have until we move past “screen time” and begin to talk about specifics.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out https://edtechfactotum.com/.


2 thoughts on “Time to add some nuance to the phrase "screen time"

  1. __Great article, Clint. A very important issue is keeping up with the pace of change for Parents who need to know “screen time”=”value time”. It would be great see your article grow into multiple Communications designed to help Parents’ assessment of the value of their kids “screen time”. Suggest technology-enabled Communications Series, Research Evidence Knowledge via Media to all parents. __Suggest Vancouver School Board Strategic Plan needs a Communication Plan _ http://www.vsb.bc.ca/sites/default/files/publication-files/VSB_StrategicPlanandgoalsJan302012.pdf __ __Suggest District Parent Advisory Council needs a New Handbook for
    Parent Advisory Councils _ http://www.vsb.bc.ca/sites/default/files/DPAC/HandbookforPACS.pdf

    1. Thanks for those resources, Don. I’ll take a look. The other narrative that would be useful to counter is that the web is a dangerous place for kids. I see a lot of attention being paid to keeping kids safe online. Important, yes, but that can’t be the be all and end all of the messaging and training kids get around the web and digital culture. Anyway, my rant is off my chest :).

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