Lentis/Screen-Free Child Rearing
Screen-free child rearing is a parenting technique that promotes reducing or eliminating the amount of time children and adolescents spend using electronic devices with screens, such as computers, smartphones, and tablets.
As technology becomes increasingly prevalent in everyday life, children are exposed to digital media considerably more and for longer periods of time than previous generations have been. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children 18 months and younger only use screens for video-chatting, children 2-5 spend a maximum of 1 hour per day watching high-quality programs under direct parental supervision, and children over 6 have consistent, limited screen time as long as it does not interfere with sleep, physical activity, or their overall health. Despite these guidelines, the actual screen time averages are staggeringly higher at 5 hours for children ages 3 to 4, 4.5 hours for ages 5 to 7, 6 hours for preteens, and 9 hours for teenagers. Statistics show that the "average American household has more televisions than people and has it on over 8 hours a day", contributing to children between the ages of 8 and 18 watching an average of 3 hours of television daily. Generally, the information presented is not educational and has been linked to the development of inappropriate behavior, poor eating habits, and substance abuse. This led to parents, educators, and researchers to question the impact of screen time on developing children and their well-being, although the debate is largely driven by parents on both ends of the screen-free and screen-embracing spectrum.
Many parents believe that their children spend too much time looking at screens and nearly 80% are concerned about the content in popular media. Large amounts of screen time are associated with chronic health problems. Researchers believe issues like obesity and sleep deprivation stem in part from device overuse, although more evidence is needed to prove these theories. Electronic devices often promote sedentary activities while chronically exposing viewers to unhealthy food advertisements, and screens emit blue light that boosts attention and reaction time, detracting from sleep.
Although parents may want their child to be screen-free, kids who are suddenly placed under restrictions tend to rebel or find ways to secretly get screen-time. Reddit user MamaTeeVee “desperately needs advice on how to limit screen time” after realizing she uses “screens as a babysitter” because she is exhausted from caring for her 9 month old twins and "need[s] to make dinner without the kids losing their minds". Another Redditor throw-er-way is concerned his 8 year old son "is addicted to screens” after he “went completely off the rails” when they were taken away, "[y]elling rediculous things like, 'why are you torturing me?!'". Like many parents, user throw-er-way worries that restricting screens will only cause children to think of them as "desirable forbidden fruit" and find the entertainment elsewhere, without an adult to help them navigate to appropriate content.
Henry Labalme and Matt Pawa established Screen-Free Week (SFW) in 1994 with the intention of reducing the amount of time families spent consuming television. Originally known as TV-Turnoff, the campaign's first year garnered the official support of nine independent organizations and reached nearly 1 million people. Even if children’s media use is monitored, digital entertainment dominates many children's lives. Screen-Free Week aims to get parents and children thinking about their technology dependence and have time to explore screen-free interests or connect in person.
Children's Screen Time Action Network
The Children’s Screen Time Action Network is another project of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The Network’s mission is to support healthy development by providing resources to professionals who help families manage their technology use. The Network was created as a response to educators, pediatricians, and other professionals who are concerned about childhood tech use and see its harmful effects.
Free Range Parents
In 2008 Lenore Skenanzy wrote an article titled “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone” and the story gained national attention, starting the free-range parenting movement. Free-range parents are concerned about negative effects of “helicopter parenting” and want to give their children freedom. One value of free-range parents is encouraging their kids to play in nature without technology. Free Range Kids provides a history and more in-depth discussion of the concept.
Potential Benefits of Screen Time
Nathaniel Turner argues for increased active television watching by turning it into a game where viewers exercise during commercials. Turner advocates for active thinking during this time as well by challenging children to research scenes, predict future episodes, or recreate a home version of Jeopardy.
Anna Palmer argues that “allowing our kids to make their own choices (particularly during free time) improves their confidence, time management, and ability to sense and meet their own need” and “preserves the parent-child relationship”. Many video games also encourage dancing and moving. Especially as kids get older, technology offers access to learning and academics.
Although the AAP previously recommended no media exposure for children under two years, new guidelines lift this restriction and instead stress the importance of parents’ engagement with their children’s media use. One example of positive use is connecting with family members on video chat platforms when in-person interactions are not possible. The AAP emphasizes the value of parents monitoring and guiding the kinds of media their children consume.
Tantleff-Dunn and Wack studied the relationship between video games and health in young men and found “a significant positive correlation between frequency of play and self-reported frequency of playing when bored, lonely, or stressed”, suggesting gaming may provide a healthy method of coping.
Tech companies persuade school leaders to buy laptops, learning apps, and other technology. Baltimore County Public Schools, for example, committed more than $200 million for HP laptops in 2014. Vendors visit classrooms and some tech-company promotional videos feature schoolchildren. Tech companies donate money to school districts and fund education events to court public school decision makers. Ivory and Singer liken tech companies' efforts to push laptops and apps in schools to drug companies influencing doctors' prescribing practices.
Media creators create content with the goal of getting as many views as possible. Elsagate is a term referring to YouTube videos that feature popular children’s characters, specifically Elsa or Spiderman, but have disturbing and inappropriate content. These videos often have thumbnails with recognizable children’s characters performing disturbing acts that serve as clickbait for children. Although the motives are not certain, the content may be fascinating to children and is thus financially lucrative.
Research and Case Studies
A Week at the Pali Institute
In this study, 51 children ages 11 to 13 spent five days at the Pali Institute, an outdoor education camp facility located outside of Los Angeles, California. At this camp the children had no access to electronic devices and had ample opportunity for person-to-person social interaction. In contrast, the control group attended a typical week of school with no screen or media restriction. Analysis of tests given to both groups revealed that children who attended the screen free camp had significant improvements in their ability to read facial emotion. This study implicates that while digital media may provide new and easy ways to learn and communicate it can also impact a child’s ability to carry out successful face-to-face social interactions.
iPad Education in New Zealand
This study identified and observed the interface of education and technology at Redoubt North Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand. This school was one of the earliest adopters of the iPad for classroom use due to the device's ability to offer a diverse set of applications that students could access to supplement their studies. In 2012, the school owned 48 iPads that were used on a daily basis, most commonly in senior classes with students between ages 9 and 12. Previously, they had 5 Aspire netbooks per class (30 total).
The uses of the iPads differed based on the school subject and age group. A teacher identified that younger children were still learning to read and write, making the internet a complex space, so they were more drawn to gaming applications more frequently than the web browser. In addition, a senior class teacher viewed iPads not as a tool to increase scores or tests grades, but to increase productivity in the classroom itself.
Families and Technology in Scotland
The observation of families in Scotland illustrates how technology can impact the learning ability of preschoolers. Lydia Plowman observed fourteen families, each having a three-year-old child. Seven of these families had low socioeconomic status and 12 of the target children had siblings. All families considered to have high socioeconomic status also had high technology ownership. Regardless, these families had mixed attitudes towards technology from guarded to well disposed. The technologies exposed to children prior to starting school include mobile phones, television, game consoles, DVD and MP3 players, and computers. The main form of exposure within these families was television, followed by video games. Looking closer at two of the children can help to illustrate the effects that these technologies have on children. The first child, Arden Bain, would watch television and read books and magazines. His mother encouraged him to use technology to learn and be prepared for school. He used his children’s laptop to learn all of the letters of the alphabet and also get a head start on counting. Another child, Jasmine Searl, enjoyed imaginative play like drawing and coloring. She was observed to be more hesitant around technology due to its perceived complexity. Her mother supervised technology use on the laptop of Skype and a children’s website because she believes her child should interact with real people and develop social skills. Jasmine would also use her toys to pretend to use a phone like her sister. These observations identify that family setting and interaction in relation to technology can play a role in technology being used for learning instead of strictly entertainment.
Today's youth have far more frequent, concentrated exposure to technology at earlier ages than any previous generation, especially since the advent of the smartphone. Additionally, some articles encourage parents to minimize their own screen use as children are likely to mimic the behavior they see. As such, more research on the impact of screen-based media on development is necessary to draw accurate conclusions about its effect on development, health, and behavior.
Screen-free advocates point to research showing a correlation between screen time and obesity, attention deficit disorders, violence, and delayed language development. They argue that screen use displaces time that should instead be allocated for engaging in imaginative play and building or strengthening relationships with friends and family.
However, some parents argue that eliminating screen time altogether is impractical. Children need to be familiar with computers to complete homework, and many tablets and smartphones have educational games that promote learning. Additionally, a child that does not have access to the same media as his or her peers would not be able to discuss the content, putting him or her at a social disadvantage. Parents are also concerned that, by restricting or forbidding a certain media, the child will seek it out elsewhere, possibly covertly, due to the psychological reactance phenomenon. Unsupervised, the child would be more likely to find inappropriate content in places they assumed were safe. For example, during Elsagate, content creators uploaded hugely popular videos about the Disney character Elsa on YouTube Kids that depicted obscene behavior, gore, and sexual themes.
Although screen-free proponents and critics appear diametrically opposed, both believe their approach is the best way to provide today's youth with an enriching childhood.
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- AAP (2016, October 21). American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children's Media Use. https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx
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- Tantleff-Dunn, S. and Wack, E. (2009). Relationships between electronic game play, obesity, and psychosocial functioning in young men. Cyberpsychology and Behavior. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19006465
- Ivory, D. and Singer, N. (2017, November 3). How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/technology/silicon-valley-baltimore-schools.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0
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- Williams, Mari-Jane (2014, August 6). Parents are the ones who need limits on screen time. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/08/06/parents-are-the-ones-who-need-limits-on-screen-time/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.950b87aff659
- Welch, Ashley (2018, August 6). Health experts say parents need to drastically cut kids' screen time. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/parents-need-to-drastically-cut-kids-screen-time-devices-american-heart-association/
- Nugent, Courtney & Supplee, Lauren (2018, March 14). 5 ways screen time can benefit children and families. https://www.childtrends.org/child-trends-5/5-ways-screen-time-can-benefit-children-and-families
- Palmer, Anna Rosenblum (2016, February 2).The Benefits of Screen Time for Kids: A Look at the Data. https://www.mother.ly/parenting/the-benefits-of-screen-time-for-kids-a-look-at-the-data
- Di Placido, Dani (2017, November 28). YouTube's "Elsagate" Illuminates the Unintended Horrors Of The Digital Age. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2017/11/28/youtubes-elsagate-illuminates-the-unintended-horrors-of-the-digital-age/#428ebb66ba71