Whenever a new study or article about children and screen time is published, I hunt through it for the typical bias against technology I’ve come to expect from modern parenting culture. Not a day goes by without somebody complaining about kids and their computer/cellphone/tablet/TV gaming use. The kids are too young! They are getting too much exposure! They don’t spend enough time building tree forts anymore!
Remember back when so many people thought violent video games or rap lyrics were ruining children? We all lived through that. Thankfully, hardly anybody thinks a first-person shooter is going to turn your son or daughter into a killer anymore. If anything, gaming culture has grown bigger and more diverse despite the ratings and ban on underage sales. Some rap music is now celebrated as classic enough to pass on to our children as a sign of respecting multiple genres and tastes.
If you want to keep your kids from owning technology or from getting on social media until they are in college, go for it — they’re your kids. As a tech-positive dad, however, I cringe when parents start talking about how much screen time is too much, what “good” screen time is, and so on.
What age is appropriate for children to start using devices? Honestly? Birth. Just hand them a cellphone and quit worrying. OK, maybe not birth but why are we — especially those of us who came of age with the internet — so scared of how our children are interacting with these tools? In my opinion, these overblown fears reflect our societal guilt about something else. Our fear of kids and technology is less about either and more about being pioneers: the parents who raise the first generation of digital natives.
Screen time essential for digital natives to compete, grow
We’re trailblazing and setting the rules and, yet, we are also a little sad about our own youth of hand-cranked car windows being gone. My kids will probably never drive a car with hand-cranked windows. And I’m OK with that. What I’m even more OK with is when my preschool-age children have questions about the world, they tell me to ask my phone. I could send them to the library, sure. But why? My phone has the answers. That’s amazing! That’s ripped from the future. They recognize the power of technology.
The questions in my house usually revolve around animals. What do alligators eat? Are there any birds that hibernate? What do you call baby pteranodons? I noticed that, curiously, my kids very rarely ask the annoying “why” question that kids their age are notorious for. When my daughter asked me a few of those in a row the other day, it struck me how odd that was. Then I realized: I’m well-read and I’ve taught them to consult a resource to find an answer. They like the process of gaining knowledge! Do I sometimes regret that they won’t grow up thinking that rain comes from the Man In The Moon crying or some other childhood myth? I don’t think they are without storytelling and symbolism in their lives. Their lack of tree forts isn’t ruining them forever.
Exceptions and rules on kids and technology
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, as parents, my wife and I disagree over our own family policy on screen time. Some nights, videos on Daddy’s phone substitute for books. (Gasp!) My kids don’t own their own handheld video consoles like others their age do. Most importantly, we rarely leave them alone with a device. We always monitor them because we don’t use parental control software.
Our school district hands out iPads in kindergarten and I’m fine with that. I’m fine with Big Data mining my children’s browsing habits. I’m fine with a lot of these things we have great cultural issues and debates over these days. Why? Because I can see the way my own kids seamlessly integrate technology into their own lives.
Are there drawbacks and prices to be paid? Sure. But, on the whole, it makes me sad to see the way that people with cell phones in their own pockets fail when it comes to tech and their kids. It’s hypocrisy to me. Many of us hated being talked down to and overprotected when we were children. However, we now do it to a whole new generation behind us.
We need to stop framing our children’s technology use as a “danger issue” and start framing it as a “science issue.” If we want the United States to stop being behind in STEM and get kids interested in learning, then we must make the world accessible. We have to get them curious. I light up when my children want to know about the human body or space or even when they’re obsessed with trucks. And I can’t wait for my kids to take coding classes.
So, no, your children are not getting too much screen time. Are they getting too much science time? Too much “I want to communicate with the world” time? Too much library and reading time? The next time you put down your technology, stop and ask yourself if what your children are doing could lead to a lifelong love of better understanding of the world. That’s definitely not something they’ll get from building a tree fort.
A version of this first appeared on Newfangled Dad.
Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures.net