Screen time for children not necessarily the 'evil' we think, researchers say

We all know the very real dangers of screen time - but do we overlook the benefits that digital media can offer?
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We all know the very real dangers of screen time - but do we overlook the benefits that digital media can offer?

We have seen the stats and heeded the warnings about too much screen time for the kids. Now experts are saying it may actually be good for them. 

Screens are part of modern daily life — our phones are computers, tablets and laptops are mandatory in most schools, and we have unfettered access to the wonders of the world wide web. 

But modern parenting wisdom often focuses on devices as harmful and mind-numbing; creating crabby, square-eyed, coach potato children. 

Phones and tablets aren't just for exploring the weird and wonderful corners of the internet, reading and educational ...
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Phones and tablets aren't just for exploring the weird and wonderful corners of the internet, reading and educational apps designed for children can help improve literacy and creativity.

Sure, there are drawbacks: a recent study found one in six Kiwi teens spends up to six hours a day online. But are we overlooking the benefits of technology use? 

READ MORE: 
Five ways parents can help kids balance social media with the real world
Screen-time before bed linked to sleep deprivation and behaviour issues
How to set boundaries on screen time
How do you manage your children's screen time?

University of Auckland research fellow Dr Rachel Williams did not expect she’d be such a "huge proponent" for screen-time.

Screen time isn't always a waste of time, research out of the UK suggests.
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Screen time isn't always a waste of time, research out of the UK suggests.

But the former physical education teacher has changed her tune: Williams founded a screen-based, digital learning platform for children at low-decile Auckland schools, which includes daily blogging during the school holidays.

In the Summer/Winter Learning Journey programme, year 4-8 students pick from a series of activities about a central topic - in this case, a digital trip around New Zealand - and then blog about what they learnt along the way. 

Williams said digital media and screens provide a unique avenue for learning and socialisation.

Parents engaging with their children in screen time can help them get more from the experience, researchers Alicia ...
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Parents engaging with their children in screen time can help them get more from the experience, researchers Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone said.

Students across 10 east Auckland schools can read and share their blogs with one another, giving and receiving feedback.

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It’s paying off, she said: "We’re seeing incredible gains personally, socially, developmentally, in terms of literacy achievement in both reading and writing".

Targeted, controlled screen time is an "untapped resource," which can be used to build social and creative competency in a way that kids might not do face-to-face, Williams said.

Screens can create a "safe space" where a child can get information at their own pace, consider their responses and adjust the way they engage with others, reducing anxiety which might otherwise come up in a classroom setting, she said.

"In a world of concerns about cyber bullying and negative online interactions, we’re seeing the polar opposite can also be true".

Williams said she was "pretty cautious" when it came to the rules around screen time for her own seven-year-old son, having been inundated with information on the risks.

But he has regular - monitored - access to devices and loves playing maths games online, she said.

Given her history in physical education, Williams said she "completely understands" when people query the use of screens, especially in her case over the school holiday period, when the argument is kids should be outside playing and running around.

"I couldn't agree more".

But there is a place alongside that to provide opportunities to keep learning and activity happening, and to provide an additional social space online, she said.

"I’ve really come right around to truly believing that screens can serve a purpose for young people."

UK researchers Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone suggested the focus should be on what children are doing when using devices, as opposed to how long they use them. 

Their research on parenting in the digital future showed screen time can promote 'hard and soft skills' in children: learning and creativity, supporting literacy and numeracy, inspiring personal expression and aiding academic achievement.

Controlled social media can also give children and young people the ability to connect with others, and engage in civic action through joining community groups or social justice movements, they said.

A 2016 ASG and Monash University survey of 800 New Zealand parents showed 55 per cent felt their children spent too much time in front of a screen, and 48 per cent struggled to limit their child's use of digital devices.

But Blum-Ross and Livingstone suggested that keeping your kids away from screens altogether could be doing more harm than good. 

By heavily restricting a child's access to the internet, children experience reduced exposure to risk, but also fewer opportunities for learning and engagement, they said. 

Similarly, though many parents use digital media as a way of keeping children busy, if parents join in, children actually enjoy and learn more, they said. 

Not all screen time is sedentary. Last year, Pokemon Go proved augmented reality can play a significant role in getting people active and outside.

Geo AR, part of Wellington's Lightning Lab XX, has been working on mobile outdoor games in parks and designated spaces for play since 2015.

They created Sharks in the Park, an app designed to get children active by running away from giant interactive sharks to save schools of fish. 

Geo AR also teamed up with Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington councils to create Magical Park, a mixed reality/digital playground.

Chief executive Melanie Langlotz said the inspiration for using augmented reality in gaming came from her then 7-year-old stepdaughter, who like many Gen Z'ers, was glued to her phone.

In May, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Sport New Zealand released updated guidelines for young people, aged five to 17 years. 

The broad guide for a "healthy 24 hours" included no more than two hours per day of recreational screen time.

 

 - Stuff

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