How do you count screen time? Screens are so much a part of our lives, and in just a few moments we can check texts, read the newspaper, and map out a bike route. Our kids see this.
It’s been fascinating to watch my grandson gradually become interested in light and then screens over these past four years. Early on he’d glance at any area that was lit up — a window, a lamp, a toy — and eventually I’d see him study, with rapt concentration, a lit up screen or unusual light anywhere in the vicinity. When he was a bit over two, his parents got him a fake toy screen — not at all interesting — but real screens, the type we use in almost every part of our lives, grabbed his attention, and fairly soon he wanted to do things with those devices.
Now four, he thinks screens are a big deal. He’d love to play games, watch TV, or just get mom or dad’s iPad or mobile phone to play a game. However, although he lives in a home with multiple screens, his time is limited, and digital devices are rarely used as a baby sitter or diversion. Besides, he has books, lots of books.
Yet, if I take out my cell phone, or his mom gets out her iPad, he’s right there checking it out and ready to go. When I babysit, it is not uncommon for him to ask if he can watch TV. (Usually, my answer is not right now.)
I mention all this because, during my years as an educational technology teacher and a digital parenting educator, I shared, over and over, the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). For several years that organization recommended no screen time before two years of age and moderate use after that. Now AAP has updated its recommendations to reflect the density of media in family life. But parents, colleagues, and students continue to have difficulty defining screen time, especially for young children. In today’s world you simply can’t get away from screens and everyone wonders: How do you decide what counts as the screen time that should be limited?
Suppose I put music on my laptop and dance with my grandson? Does that count? What about the digital online pictures of frogs and giraffes that he loves to gaze at online, especially after a story when we are sitting together? Early on in my grandmother activities, I discovered that when we want to learn to sing a son together, a screen really helps — most recently with Rainbow Connection and Octopus’s Garden (skipping the YouTube advertisements). Surely this does not count as screen time that should be limited.
And what about long-distance time spent with screens? I wrote a post on my other blog about video phone calls that began when my grandson was just a few months old. FaceTime: I Feel Like I’m Right There Watching Him Grow describes how my mom, age 91, anticipates every Facetime interaction with her great-grandson as if it were a special holiday celebration. She feels like she has been right there watching him grow, even though she lives 400 miles away.
So what counts as screen time and what does not?
For me it all comes down to interacting with another person. Using a device while sitting together, discovering something new, reading a digital story to use up the time in a waiting room where the book selections are sparse, searching for favorite pictures –these are all activities that my grandson and I can do with screens, and together is the fundamental element that distinguishes these activities from generic screen time.
It’s not generic screen time when a young child uses a screen activity with another caring individual, whether it’s learning or just having a good time. The screen time is secondary to the language, the fun, and the sheer joy of companionship.