Stop cursing the digital babysitter: Why screens aren't always bad for our kids

Kinderling News & Features

Lately I’ve started to feel that there’s a moral panic going on about children and the use of screens.

There’s a lot of finger pointing, name-calling and generally unhelpful judgement directed at parents (though when is judgement actually helpful?).

Comments about parents being lazy and using screens as digital babysitters are completely out of whack with my experience of reality.

I don’t know any parent who will sit their child in front of a screen and leave them there while they go and have dinner or watch a movie.

I do know parents (and I am one of them) who are eternally grateful to screens. They are devices that will keep their kids occupied for 30 minutes while they get ready for work or distract them when they’re tired and over it while out in public.

Parents understand the pitfalls of screen time, and we’re trying to manage it

If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re a concerned parent who does their best to monitor their kids’ screen time.

Now that we have a generation of children who have grown up with devices the research is coming out about how too much screen time can interrupt social skills and development. A key example is Dr Jean Twenge’s book I Gen that documents the huge social shift in just one generation.

Why does the general public assume that parents would hear this kind of research and then blithely ignore it?

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a children’s technology and development expert. She speaks to thousands of parents every year about screen time. The parents she talks to are taking control and becoming the pilot of their child’s digital plane.

“Many parents are alert and alarmed about what their kids can encounter online and about how much time would be considered 'safe’ or 'healthy' for their child's age, but most don't see this as problematic. As the pilot of the digital plane parents need to help guide their children when it comes to using screens in healthy and appropriate ways,” Kristy explains.

Fear mongering doesn’t help parents take control

It’s our role as parents to guide our children through this digital age. It’s an age that is rapidly changing all the time.

The fact is that screens are here to stay. Harking back to the good old days doesn’t make those days come back. The older generation may have brought up their kids without screens – and maybe that was better. Who knows? But it’s unrealistic (and ultimately unhelpful) to assume that you can reverse history and delete screens from our lives today.

Listen to Kristy on Kinderling Conversation:

Kristy calls this kind of nostalgic commentary “techno-guilt” and “techno-shame”. She believes it stops parents having open and honest conversations about screen use.

“There's this (misguided) belief that screens are bad for kids and you're a slack parent for handing over a digital device to your kids.  That's simply not the case.  The research tells us that if screens are used intentionally and in developmentally-appropriate ways kids can benefit from them. Technology is not toxic or taboo for kids,” Kristy says. 

There is such a thing as good screen time

Bronwyn Mandile is the managing editor of Mumlyfe and author of Screen Freedom. She wrote the eBook in response to her own challenges navigating screen time with her kids.

“Screens are a wonderful tool for research, learning, entertainment and creativity. The quality of what kids are doing on screens is possibly more important than how much time they are spending there. To me there is a big difference between a kid creating and editing her own (locked) YouTube content versus a kid watching other people's YouTube content,” Bronwyn adds.

With younger children, Kristy says it’s often about having a shared experience with an adult. She says there are some basic things for parents to remember when it comes to “good” screen time.

“They need to have firm and consistent boundaries around what kids can watch/play/create online, when they can use screens (minimising use before sleep or nap time), where they can use screens (e.g. keeping devices out of bedrooms and play areas) and for how long they can use screens (and they don't give into the techno-tantrum when their child combusts when you ask them to pass back their smartphone). I also encourage parents to carefully consider how kids are using screens and technology so that their screen time doesn't impinge on their physical health and wellbeing.”

Screen time is not just a problem for parents with children

If you only listen to talkback radio you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s only parents who are failing to manage screen time.

Next time you’re standing on a train platform, or are sitting on a bus, I challenge you to find more than two adult humans who are not looking at a screen. As we know there is a range of ages that use public transport, it’s not just the young folk that are disappearing into their devices.

The challenge of how to manage screen time well is a challenge for all of us. It’s about the people who make the technology as much as those who use it. And it’s not just up to parents.

Mobile devices have brought a lot of creativity, thought and productivity into our lives, but there is also a downside. It’s about how we all manage that downside that’s important now.

Finger pointing and blaming others isn’t going to give us the answer.

Taking collective responsibility just might.