Screens: Are They Really The Enemy?

08/05/2017 17:22
Emma Innocenti via Getty Images

Society has always found forests' worth of sticks to beat parents with. Currently vying with refined sugar for the title of slackest parenting choice, is allowing your children to use screens.

Here's what I've come to realise though: refusing to accept and embrace your kids' place in a digital world may do them far more of a disservice.

65% of children starting school this year will end up in jobs that have yet to be created, according to the US Department of Labour. Screens (not garlic bread, Peter Kay) are the future.

I've not always felt like this. When discussing what to buy our nine year old for his last birthday, my husband pitched for a basic laptop computer. My response was "No bloody way! He'll have wholesome construction toys, craft materials and books - stuff that makes him think". My husband won (a rare occurrence) and in the last year we've been living with a diminutive coder, graphic designer and animator. There's been no shortage of thinking.

Even tablets for the littlest kids, which seem to be the cause of most condemnation, have their developmental perks. A survey by Psychologist Dr Tim J Smith, Birkbeck, University of London found that in toddlers aged 19-36 months, the age that parents reported their child first actively scrolling a touchscreen was positively associated with the age that they were first able to stack blocks, a measure of fine motor control.

At the other end of the scale, todays teenagers are castigated for being sullen, screen-obsessed zombies but Professor Robert Winston (doctor, scientist and all-round legend), believes social media is having a positive effect on their lives. He says "it's very easy to make sweeping statements about what is good or bad, or how many minutes you should be online, but most of that stuff is rubbish".

Social media was discussed in a recent episode of Winston's Child of Our Time, which showed the original children as 16 year olds. One of the teenagers, who'd recently come out as being gay had found her own support network online, having felt alone and isolated in the real world.

That's the science bit covered, but you don't have to be a boffin to see how screens really get kids' attention and how this can be milked for good use. Schools use devices for everything from phonics for four year olds to having fourteen year olds cross-check textbook information about the Syrian crisis, with up-to-the-minute online data. There are apps that support children with autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia and special needs. At the Khan Academy based in Silicon Valley, the teacher is an app.

The games and social media used by generation Z are at least interactive, unlike the screen time of our (generation X's) youth. This consisted of hours of passive, inert TV-watching, including the ironically-named Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go Out and Do Something Less Boring Instead?

Some lucky few had early home computers, which in reward for 30 minutes of noisy loading time, allowed you to bat a pixelated ball backwards and forwards against a wall. One of my proudest achievements was getting to level 33 of Arkanoids. It took me 2 hours and gave me a urine infection. Previous generations' childhoods weren't quite so wholesome after all.

Finally let's be honest and unashamed about a big benefit of giving little Johnny an iPad - it gives little Johnny's parents a break! Yes, this is the contentious bit but it's all about common sense, moderation and resisting the temptation to use them as babysitters. Without a doubt, children should spend more time making masterpieces, mud pies and memories but sometimes it rains, sometimes there's travelling to do or sometimes mummy's just dog tired.

Still sitting on a high horse when it comes to screen time? How are you reading this blog? On a phone, computer or tablet, perchance? Maybe it's time to climb down from that horse.

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