Screen Free Week: The Wrong Conversation

My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft
My son plays one of his favorite puzzle games. Photo: Amy Kraft

As someone who makes games for kids to play on screens, I’m not a fan of the Center for a Commercial Free Childhood’s Screen-Free Week, which begins today. I’m all for kids getting more unstructured play, more time outdoors, more time reading, and other good stuff, but the label “Screen-Free Week” forces the wrong conversation that lasts all year long.

The Center for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has found receptive ears here in New York City and elsewhere. I know many parents who have thrown out their TVs and heavily restrict other screens in the house. I’m on the tech committee at my daughter’s elementary school, and there are parents who are outraged at having computers in the classroom. Computers! Just wait until we can afford iPads! The parent association and the principal enlisted me to talk to other parents to try to change some hearts and minds.

When some parents think of TVs, computers, iPads, etc. they picture mindless games that suck the attention of their child. The CCFC reinforces this brain-rotting view of screen-based media, but it’s to the detriment of children as future members of our creative, technology-based society.

Here’s what I picture when I think of screens:

  • Tools: in one place you have (often) a camera to shoot pictures and video, a music player, and a recording device. Add in some creativity apps and all of the sudden you have a canvas for painting and a recording studio. This is a powerful combination to spark kids’ imagination.
  • Communication: FaceTime, Skype, social media… suddenly the world is not so big. I recently Skyped with four 6th grade language arts classes in Washington, Illinois to talk to the kids about writing for video games and blogs. Kids can have conversations with their favorite writers, actors, and even fictional characters. They can even connect with classrooms halfway around the world.
  • Research library: I’ve recently had to do a lot of research about animals, and short of seeing them in person, nothing teaches about animals like nature shows and videos. Kids can visit some of the world’s greatest museums while sitting in front of their screens.
  • Interactive learning: From ABCs and 123s to space exploration and the human body, apps give kids hands-on experience with learning concepts.
  • Entertainment: Ever want to unwind with your favorite show or game? Yeah, your kids do, too. And it’s not like their minds turn off while they’re being entertained. Kids’ favorite shows can help them think about social situations, or interesting topics, or even storytelling and character. A good game requires interesting problem solving.  My daughter and I talk about scientific method while playing Plants Versus Zombies.

The message of Screen-Free Week is that kids would be playing outside more were it not for screens. Kids would be reading more if it weren’t for screens. Kids would be healthy were it not for screens.

I’m not denying that screen time sometimes displaces other activities, but they’re not the root of all evil. See above. They’re actually pretty awesome. I like KaBoom’s active play positive messaging much better.

This is what I mean by the wrong conversation. Instead of being “for” or “against” screen time, we should be talking about how to create the lifestyle we want for our children. I’m going to borrow from Lisa Guernsey here, who talks about the three C’s: Content, Context, and the Child. I think that’s key.

What’s the right combination for your child, your family? When you consume content, is it quality worthy of your kids’ time? Do you co-view? Do you talk about what your child is playing/watching. You can turn something that you think may have no nutritive value (say and episode of SpongeBob SquarePants) into and awesome learning experience just by talking about it.

If I were to name an awareness week, maybe I’d go with “Quality Time” week. Have a look at your family choices for how to spend your time and see if they’re worthy of your family’s precious time and your kids’ awesome, developing, curious minds.

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