Screens have become ubiquitous among young children, whose often exhausted parents need their child entertained and engaged while they work, go out or take some much-needed me-time. Whereas parents used to lug around huge bags filled with toys in the past, these have now been replaced by bright, responsive and, frankly, more compelling devices.
The screentime debate got virtually muted during Covid, as parents needed the electronic nanny more than ever, and kids moved onto their devices for schooling. But the time is right again to have a discussion not about cancelling screentime, but about how to strike the right balance between screentime and green time, as well as the differences between different kinds of screentime as children, continue their educational journeys online to a significant degree, an education expert says.
“We need to avoid the scaremongering and bad science that leads to an unbalanced understanding of the importance of screens in today’s educational ecosystem and instead consider the specific types and uses of a screen when deciding on how to strike a balance in terms of screentime,” says Colin Northmore, Principal at Evolve Online School, a brand of ADvTECH, Africa’s largest private education provider.
Northmore points out that the issue of screentime has become more vexing than ever before, as the “relaxation” type of screentime has now become augmented by “educational” screentime, and parents struggle to make a call on where to draw the line.
“Most research recommends that children spend no more than 1 to 4 hours a day looking at a screen. As an online school, one could say that we have a vested interest in arguing that screentime is not harmful. However, the truth is that like most things in life, it is a bit more complicated than that because screentime as a catch-all phrase is not a useful measurement on its own,” Northmore says.
“Additionally, as many students are in front of a screen for educational purposes – would that be considered screentime or not? The answer lies in defining three different types of screentime: passive, active and engaged.”
PASSIVE SCREENTIME is when the person is watching a screen for entertainment reasons without interacting with the content physically or cognitively. Typical examples are watching television or YouTube videos. It can also include some games that require routine and easily learned responses, like various popular games in the app stores. Unfortunately, where an online school uses mostly pre-recorded lessons or lectures, those should fall into the ‘passive screentime’ category. Northmore says passive screen time should be limited to one hour a day for younger children.
ACTIVE SCREENTIME requires the viewer to interact with what is on the screen. Many computer games fall into this category. Documentaries can also sometimes be considered active if the student takes time to make notes about the content or debate it with family or classmates. Online classes are considered active if the teacher’s process requires children’s full attention (but not necessarily active participation). Some apps used for mathematics, reading and grammar practice can also lead to a child actively using a screen. Active screentime can be rationed at 1 to 3 hours a day, depending on the length of and spacing between sessions. Grade 0 to 3 students should not spend more than 30 minutes in any active session.
COGNITIVE SCREENTIME requires active engagement from the participant and should form the bulk of an online school’s teaching, failing which this time should be allocated to passive screentime. Northmore says meaningful online schooling should use systems that make it possible to interrupt the video and ask questions before the viewing can continue. Teachers can then decide if the answer is correct before the video proceeds. If necessary, the video can be rewound to require children to watch a piece repeatedly until they demonstrate understanding. Students can spend between 2 to 4 hours a day on cognitive screentime activities.
“It is important to ensure that the screentime that your child is exposed to is a combination of the three types and that schooling isn’t automatically considered cognitive screentime when it is, in fact, passive screentime,” says Northmore.
He adds that parents should also keep in mind that children need, in addition to time spent on screens, green time, team time and Dreamtime.
Green time is outside time without devices – the backyard, park, or sports field. Kids need outside physical activities, and ideally, an online school should provide opportunities for such just the same as a physical school would do, such as assigning tasks requiring students to get outside to find answers.
Team time is also essential, particularly in the online schooling environment, which can be isolating if not actively supported.
Dreamtime develops a child’s imagination and is the most powerful tool for overcoming obstacles and finding creative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Mindfulness exercises and imaginative play are crucial to developing the imagination, and even online schools should actively include Dreamtime in curricula.
“Parents must carefully consider the approach of screentime pedagogy in an online school or not. Screentime cannot be regarded as valuable learning time if it is mainly paper behind glass. Children still need social interaction and collaborative learning.
“So when making the call on screentime limits for children, parents need to carefully weigh up the categories into which their child’s screentime falls every day, and make their assessment accordingly.