Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Screen Time

This is a bit of a tangent for a programming blog, but I figure this is a relevant topic for many people reading this blog.

The TL;DR review: If you're interested in kids and how they interact with media, buy this book.

I love technology. Probably more than most non-technology people really understand. I love its potential, the changes it makes to the world, and the ideas that drive it forward. And I look forward to sharing that love with my baby daughter. Some dads can't wait until their kid can go to a baseball game; I can't wait until she is able to grasp that technology is a thing within her ability to control and mold. And the day she expresses an interest in controlling that technology herself? They'll be able to see me smiling from the International Space Station.

That's not always a popular view here in Hippyville, USA, otherwise known as Berkeley. Paradoxically, a casual drive from some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, there is a pervasive notion that mixing technology and kids is bad. One extreme -- Waldorf schools -- came up in conversation with my wife. Here's an excerpt from http://www.whywaldorfworks.org:

"Waldorf teachers are concerned that electronic media hampers the development of the child's imagination. They are concerned about the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming."

While I think Waldorf has some good ideas, that first sentence sent me into a fury. You can't lump all electronic media together unless you're driving your philosophy through some misguided notion that "things were better in the old days." I'm not going to argue that Angry Birds or Robot Unicorn Attack is good for a kid's development, but I know of plenty of apps and "games" that are all about imagination. And I feel that the Waldorf view actually cuts off areas of exploration. (Let alone its effect on kids who, let's face it, are coming of age in a technology-driven society.)

But what do I know? Just what I feel in my gut. One article I read about kids and technology suggested a book called Screen Time, by Lisa Guernsey (the title seems to be messed up in the Amazon.com database), so I bought it.

In the end, she says, there's no easy answer. But she has a recurring theme she's derived from her research that she applies to her own children: What content is your child seeing, what context are they seeing it in, and where is your individual child in their development? Are you destroying your kids by letting them watch TV while you shower? No. Are there long-term downsides to media access if parents aren't careful? Yes.

The book focuses heavily on television time, which is less relevant to me since we rarely watch TV or even have it on. Her epilogue notes the emergence of the iPad and its potential, but there's precious little research about it so far (however, it does solve one problem with previous incarnations of interactive toys: the abstraction needed for "I press this thing on this thing way over here and the screen does something.") She does list links to sites that do thorough reviews of children's interactive media, however. My favorite is Children's Technology Review.

Still, the book is full of eye-opening explorations of the research that's out there, which she has extensively plumbed, as evidenced by her endnotes and massive bibliography. She divides the book into chapters that each address a prevailing question about kids and screens: What Exactly Is This Video Doing To My Baby's Brain, Could My Child Learn From Baby Videos, My Toddler Doesn't Seem to Notice When the TV is On - Or Does He? And so on.

Here were some of my key takeaways, in no particular order:

  • TV is not turning your kid into a zombie through passive engagement. She says that the research that argued that (heavily cited by another book on my queue, Waldorf-darling Endangered Minds) has been widely debunked. Kids engage heavily with what's on screen, trying to understand it.
  • The standard advice by the American Association of Pediatricians about no screens before two years old? Not really based on any research.
  • TV does reduce creative play time and time with parents.
  • TV in the background is a bad idea. It exposes kids to adult-themed content and makes it harder for them to develop language skills. Make it a foreground activity when it's on. (And only do short, controlled watching times. Most parents paying attention have a "you can watch this half-hour video and that's it." mentality)
  • Telling your toddler that something scary on TV or in a movie is "not real" is useless. They're toddlers; everything is real.
  • If your child has an interactive electronic thing, you will naturally steer towards saying, "Push that button now, or don't do that yet." Don't. Let the kids explore on their own. Also, most interactive media sucks: It imposes artificial constraints on what can and can't be done at any moment. There are plenty of apps that don't fall into that trap.
  • Dora the Explorer is awesome for kids. So is Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, some show called Dragon Tales, and, yes, even Barney.
  • Purveyors of products that purportedly improve your kid are rarely based on real research. But it is possible for kids to learn from DVDs and the like. Choose wisely.
  • Kids' brains are weird.
  • Products and shows often have very specific age ranges they're aimed at. Pay attention to those (but note that publishers will often advertise a wider audience to get more sales.)
  • Your involvement is important. Not just in a "Are you having fun" way but in a "what did you think of this or that?" Engage your kids about what they're seeing.
  • Moderation is important: Video entertainment is just one facet of experience (duh.)
I can't praise this book highly enough. The author has had the ability (helped along by various grants) to really dig in deep. She looks at academic research, talks to scores of parents and social workers, looks at her own kids, and tries to shape what little material is out there. 

It's possible that I highlighted more of this book than not.

1 comment:

  1. So what are some of the apps I've been harvesting? Ones that aren't just kid's apps, but are actually free-form imagination toys? Here's my list so far. Please offer your own suggestions.

    - Scribblenauts. The naive view is this is a game. The more subtle view is it's an extremely powerful storytelling tool.

    - Creatorverse. Put things on the screen. Do stuff. Watch them interact in emergent ways.

    - Toca Boca Builders. Freeform building tool kids seem to like.

    - Toca Boca Hair Salon 2. Really fun to play with.

    - SketchNation. Build derivatives of well-known game types with your own artwork and ideas.

    - Isle of Tune. Create a musical landscape.

    - Musyc. Add shapes and connect them to make sounds and music.

    - 123D Sculpt and 123D Creature. These are for older kids, but they're very powerful tools.

    - Sandbox mode in Bad Piggies (suggested by a friend who I think very highly of). Build freeform vehicles and set them off.

    And some of the more specifically kid-centric apps that have caught my eye:

    - The app versions of various Sandra Boynton books. Lightly interactive, but emphasize reading the story.

    - Fish School HD. Cute little app for teaching shapes, the alphabet, numbers, and so on.

    - Musical Me!. Another cute little app for playing with music.