Friday, February 01, 2008

Screen time: How much and what kind?

I represent the media literacy group, Media Think, on a "screentime awareness" coalition consisting primarily of public health advocates.

Often, I find myself being the odd person out in the group. My colleagues are concerned primarily about the health consequences of excessive screen time for children. At the top of their list is childhood obesity and diabetes, both of which have been described as epidemics among today’s children.

I don't disagree with them, but we have a running debate in the coalition about whether, in addition to the amount of time spent in front of screens, we should be equally concerned about the content of the screen media. Should we make judgments about what is harmful and what is helpful, regardless of how much children watch it?

My cohorts don't want to go there. To make our task simple, they want to focus on limiting screen time, which is easily quantifiable. Our guide has been the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP says that children shouldn’t spend more than one or two hours a day with "quality programming" on screens. Children two years old and younger should spend NO time in front of screens. (Throw out the Baby Einstein, parents!)

The reasons to limit screen time are numerous. You can check them out on the excellent AAP Media Matters web site.

That said, I like to remind my colleagues that, as a community college teacher, I routinely make assignments that require my students to write on computers. They can easily spend three or more hours doing homework in front of screens.

I maintain that how we use screens (as tools, as entertainment, as teachers, as escapes, as addictions) is as important as how much time we spend with them.

Now comes an article in today’s New York Times about the growth of online schools. If a child is "in online school” for three or four hours a day, is that bad? Many educators and parents don’t think so.

I don’t think so either.

I’m not about to resign from our "screen time" coalition, but it seems to me that anyone working on media issues must be flexible and open.

Technology, education, ways of learning and even human behavior are constantly and rapidly changing. We need to be nimble and alert to the changes, and adjust accordingly and wisely.

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