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Bad or Good? It Depends

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By ROLI S

Recently, I visited a young lady who had become a mother for the first time. She was celebrating her newborn daughter’s first monthly birthday! I could feel the excitement and the atmosphere was positive and upbeat. And then I noticed that the young mother was covering the cellphone’s screen with a napkin while talking on it when she was holding her baby and after some time, she removed her cellphone and kept it inside the cupboard away from everyone. What I noticed at that time was the making of a well-intentioned (and helicoptering) parent who will be too much concerned for her child and will fear that any length of exposure to the screen would make her child anti-social or make her addicted to certain games and screen addiction would prevent her child from connecting with the physical spaces and people and opportunities around her! Health experts, pediatricians, psychologists, educators have made ‘screen time’ a subject that gets revered attention of all parents worldwide. The concept of screen time will continue to concern people in the world today because screens have become tools of identity, stages of curiosity and part of a constant need for information. Today, homes do not have just a single TV screen TV, instead they have many screens with mobile phones finding place in every hand. These mobile phones act as the user’s portal to the world. Televisions were not this cool. I remember while growing up my primary screen time involved a television that I got exposed to while in my teens. “Do you want to be blind?” was the constant rebuke I would hear from my mother if I watched that television for some time at a stretch! When I was growing up, telephones were the dominant form of interpersonal communication and VCRs were kind of forward thinking! Imagine if someone had handed me a smartphone during the days when I was child – according to my mother, it would have blown my mind! But the truth and reality are that the stunning mobile technology is a new normal in today’s world, yet how and how much children should engage with it are the questions that have not been addressed with any clarity. The pediatricians on many occasions have suggested the limited use of media for any child younger than two years old. They have even said no to televisions in bedrooms. They have also warned about potential language delays in children watching television before their first birthday. It explained the need for ‘unstructured play time’ and ‘learning through play’. On the other hand, if tablets and smart phones are used in a quality way, screens can actually be used to promote babies’ cognitive and social development. Quality means being involved in your child’s use of the screen, watching and talking about what she is seeing or doing. Tablets can be powerful educational tools. For example, iPads are great reading tools. Compared to children who only use books, those who learn to read on iPads are more engaged, cooperative and willing to speak up, according to a researcher from the Institute of Education in London. Screens are not inherently good or bad, but what’s on these screens is. The reason why it is complicated to determine if screen time is either good or bad by parents and experts is because there are a variety of ways children use “screen time” as they grow up – from texting friends, to using social media, to learning stuff in videos and using Google to do research – that’s why studies that determine bad or good often end with “it depends”. It is much better to evaluate specific uses of screen time, rather than look at just screen time as a whole. Also, children’s and teens’ lives can be complex, and it is not always valid to generalise that a study applies to a variety of variables at work in a particular environment. As parents, we have to seek balance for the benefit of our children, not necessarily because we know balance is best, but because it is known that even if something is ultimately discovered to be terrible for our children, we’ll be able to rest easy knowing they only had limited exposure. Balance is a kind of crude form of future- proofing –– we aren’t required to intricately understand the cause and effect of every factor; we can just recommend ‘balance’ and hope the factors we balance produce a healthy ecology for our children. In the face of a culture increasingly fascinated with digital screens of various types, our policies and approaches as parents and educators must evolve or they will become obsolete. But what requires evolving may, in the end, be less about time constraints for screens, and more about our perspective on how they help our children learn and grow in this digital, tech savvy world.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher-Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai.)