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Screen-time, inequities, and ideas for a better future of children's media

MAR 2022

As a researcher who cares deeply about children's education - I personally prefer that young children (upto age 6) should be as screen-free as possible. Older kids could also benefit from limited screen-time or screen-free summers. AACAP agrees!

But then reality of inequity hits. Private Montessori and experimental schools which offer screen-free education at school, the ones that offer hands-on project based learning, or lets children climb trees and explore nature for the most day - those amazing schools are FAR MORE expensive than public schools where the good old "template" is in place: kids sit in class facing the teachers, short recess, "gifted program" that reinforces others are "not gifted", standardized tests, and so on. 

How to change this inequity? Some ideas:
  • Don't offer screen-time as a reward (not in school, not at home) because it reinforces the idea that mindless watching is great and worth striving for
  • Curate and moderate media to the best of your abilities, seek education on what's considered good and age-appropriate
  • Prefer joint-engagement whenever possible, watch together, use media as a way to converse with children
  • If you have the power to influence public education at a policy level, consider extending outdoor/free-play hours even for older children (kindergartners are not the only ones who need more creative TLC!). Who doesn't love a tub of LEGOs?
  • If you have the power to influence assessment and evaluations at a broader level, consider project based or presentation based assessment vs. harsh standardized tests 
  • If you are a researcher or senior educator, consider training and supporting new teachers on ways to incorporate more play-based or project-based or other forms of creative learning tied to the standard curriculum 
  • If you are a content-creator for children's media, consider offering a Transmedia Suite or a collection of follow-up offline hands-on activities based your media. This would reinforce transmedia making and will simplify the process of transitioning from online to offline

An extreme example of this inequity from SF Bay Area, I wanted to enroll my kiddo in a Waldorf school after learning about the advantages in my PhD studies. The tuition was over $30,000. Even if somehow we managed to afford this, it would have put a dent in our travel and retirement plans. The other "affordable" option is going to public school, where the grades are pretty high in "good neighborhoods" with expensive homes - but it's missing the free-spirited light-hearted joy of learning. 

No wonder the Bay Area titans such as Evan Spiegel (Snapchat), Sundar Pichai (Google), Steve Jobs (Apple), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit) - all prefer to limit screen times and send their children to experimental schools that make it easier to implement this philosophy. 

Even if a parent believes in the power of the screen-free, template-free, adaptive, experimental schooling - majority can't afford it. By third grade several public schools in the US offer choice of activities during free-time, one of the choices being using an iPad or Chromebook. So many parents say "My kids love LEGOs, they're coding in Scratch, they love playing outdoors, they love reading" - but if you were to offer the choices like schools do during free-time, many of the same kids will pick screens without skipping a heartbeat! This is perhaps because we as adults have perpetuated the belief of 'Netflix and chill' or saying things like "I deserve to binge-watch this series, I just came out of <enter challenging experience>" - as if the only way to unwind is gluing ourselves to screens, after most likely, overcoming a work-related ordeal involving screens (I'm guilty too!).

Some parents choose to homeschool and allow children the ability to focus more on what they are passionate about (popular example: Billie Eilish's homeschooling that allowed her to focus on music). But this requires a dedicated parent who is willing to stay at home, prepare themselves as teachers/facilitators, and dedicate their lives to the success of their children. I have respect for these parents, but not everyone would like to sacrifice their personal goals and devote full-time to parenting. 

When I researched Joint-Media Engagement, part of the idea is that parents should jointly engage with media with children as a bonding activity, but after a busy day in absence of a nanny, or when overwhelmed by guests or other responsibilities - children end up spending more time with screens than advised by AACAP.