Screen time is also quality time

One of the most common questions I’m asked by parents is,

“My kids are always on their phones/tablets/xbox/playstation/ etc.”

To which I usually reply,

“Well that’s not really a question. It’s more of a statement, but i get what you mean.”

My kids each have an iPad and a Kindle Fire, we have 3 Apple TVs a Chromecast, and an xBox. When I want to tell my kids it’s time for dinner I usually FaceTime them and my youngest has been able to text since he was 2. So… I obviously have a different opinion than many about how much screen time is too much.

The general argument for screen time

There is a lot of good science out there about how screen time affects our little one’s developing brain. There are also a lot of studies that highlight the positive effects screen time can bring. In my opinion, the benefits of our modern hyper-connected electronic epoch far outweigh any cultural side effects. But even if I didn’t believe that, it seems unlikely that we are going to be able to put the “always online genie” back in the bottle. Digital literacy is going to be a critical life skill for our children. Believe it or not, playing video games and watching YouTube is preparing your children for the jobs of the future. There are certain constants in the computer-human interface and the more time someone spends with a computer, the more intuitive these constants become. That’s why many IT professionals can sit down with an application they have never used and “figure it out” much faster than someone who has logged fewer hours in front of the keyboard (as we like to say in the industry). It’s not because of the IT professional’s knowledge of how to write programs or setup websites. It is because most programs share certain common design elements and as you get used to these, it becomes much faster and less frustrating to figure out new variations.

Whether you think an hour of screen time a day is too much or you’ve completely abandoned your children’s care and education to YouTube, what I’m going to talk about today is ways you can make sure screen time is also quality time

Educational content

There are a lot of ways you can make screen time more productive. The most obvious ones involve educational apps and websites. There is a lot of great education content out there. And the creators generally do a good job of making content interesting to kids so they won’t even realize they are learning!

It’s best to review any website or app yourself before turning your kid loose on it. You want to watch out for apps that have lots of ads. Sometimes the ads are not appropriate and they can distract your kids from the educational goodness. Many of these apps or websites will cost money, often as a subscription. Of course everyone’s situation is different, but for the most part paid subscriptions are how these content developers are able to deliver such high quality services. So paying a couple of bucks can often get you more content and supports than the free-tier of service.  

Some of my Favorites Apps and Web Sites include:

For toddlers

https://abcya.com/ is a great site with content for kids from pre-k through 6th grade. They also have good apps for iOS and Android. The site has educational games in different subjects. For the youngest ones they have games that teach shapes, colors, counting, etc. As the kids get older they can play more challenging games that help with math, reading, etc.

https://gonoodle.com/ is a great resource for those rainy days when your kids have too much energy. The site has lots of fun interactive videos to get your little ones moving and active. There are a few calming videos, but generally this is not something you want to get into near bedtime.

The GoNoodle and ABCya websites both have very good apps. A few others that have been big hits with my kids are First Words Animals by Learning Touch LLC and Toddler Counting by iTot Apps, LLC. First Words is an iOS application that helps kids learn those first important sight words and also teaches letter shapes and sounds. Learning Touch has several other apps that teach other languages as well. Toddler Counting is an incredibly simple app that displays a random number of pictures. The kid has to touch each object once at which point the app says the next number in sequence. This teaches kids one-to-one counting and also helps them learn numbers. The app demonstrates one of the advantageous of electronic education. Skills like counting need repetition for young ones to develop proficiency. The iPad is endlessly patient with the kid which is exactly what is needed to teach the foundational skills.

For older kids

Puzzle and strategy games can help kids build important problem solving skills. One of the best games of this genre is The Room Three. There is actually a The Room and The Room Two, but your not missing anything by jumping straight into the third edition. This puzzle game has a spooky feel but remains safely PG. In the game, you find yourself in a series of rooms each with some kind of machine you need to activate. You have to find objects in the room and figure out how they fit together to solve the puzzle. The game gives you hints over time so you likely won’t get stuck for days on a puzzle. This game is a great chance for kids and parents to play together. There is a great feeling when you finally solve one of the puzzles and sharing that with a parent will be a great bonding opportunity.

Trivia games are also a great choice. There are hundreds of these on different topics so look for something that matches your kids interests. Kids can challenges themselves and each other, but this can also be a fun twist on family game night. Let your kids be the trivia master and ask questions of the grown-ups.

Many popular board games are also available as apps. Monopoly, Life, Risk, etc. as well as things like chess and backgammon. Many of these can be played single player against the computer for practice but can also be multi-player. The nice thing about playing the electronic versions of these games is that there is no setup time and no mess to clean up.

Screen time is the new family drive

Screen time, even when it has no redeeming educational aspect, can still be a valuable parenting tool. Back in the long long ago, when there was no cable TV much less Netflix, families would pile into the steel and fiberglass tank that they lovingly referred to as “the family car” and go for a long drive. Without any specific destination in mind, this was simply a way to spend time together as a family. Families would talk and play games because, let’s face it, they were stuck in the car with nothing else to do. Screen time can be a way to recapture this family time but with more binge watching.

Sure, sometimes screen time is how we keep the kids occupied while we indulge ourselves as parents and do things like cook a meal or do laundry. But screen time can also be an important opportunity to spend time with your kids. Many of the family-friendly movies and TV shows today are entertaining for both children and adults and teach valuable moral lessons. Watching Frozen or Smallfoot with your kids can be a fun bonding experience. After, or even during the movie, take time to talk to your kids about what the characters did, how they might have felt and what lessons they can take away from the show. 

For older kids, movies like The Avengers series or Spider-Man are packed with teachable moments that can serve as an opportunity to discuss very serious issues in a lighter and relatable way. Also, revisiting some of those fun 80s movies can be a great way to bond with our kids and also teach them valuable lessons like what to do if you turn into a werewolf or how much electrical energy is in a bolt of lightning.  

And then there is YouTube

This post would not be complete without some discussion of YouTube. There are literally millions of hours of high quality educational content on YouTube. The trick is finding this content amongst the billions of hours of absolute crap. Here are a few tips to help you:

  • YouTube Red is a subscription service. It allows you to watch some of YouTube’s premium content and also allows you to download YouTube videos to watch offline. Most importantly though, it removes ads from YouTube videos. This is 100{12810d732553a0644ecc90a0e23d1efc26a399b3533b5403ed90d6fcf4bb1dcd} worth the cost.
  • There are 2 official YouTube apps. YouTube Kids provides a simplified interface and a curated library of videos appropriate for kids.
  • Even the regular YouTube app provides some options to filter content.

Lastly, and this is going to be the hardest part, sharing screen time with your kids is going to require some amount of compromise. Yes, you can and should force your children to watch Star Wars with you when they are of the appropriate age. And yes, you should watch them in the original release order (4,5,6,1,2,3). And yes, you have to watch episode 1. We all had to suffer through it, so do our children. But you will always need to let your kids take the lead sometimes and pick the movie. You may even need to spend at least some time watching those Fortnite videos with your kids. Again, this is an opportunity to find teachable moments. Talk with your kids about how you feel about the language and actions of the YouTubers. Make sure they know what you consider OK and what is inappropriate.

In conclusion

The most important factor in making sure screen time is quality time is to be engaged with your kids. This is the chance to learn what they like and think about, and to share with them some of the things you love. Screen time should not be a substitute for family time, it should BE family time.

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