Screens as a natural, integrated, positive part of life

On a train, a lady comments on a child watching videos on a phone, saying “It is nice to be able to look up and out at the world, to see what’s going on around her. But she is looking down at the phone.” The lady seems to genuinely care for the child’s well-being and wants to express her concern. She sees a child missing out on connection with her mom and the world around her as she stares down at the screen.

But there is a lot of connection between the mom and child! They are watching videos together, talking about them, what is happening in them, expressing emotions that arise while watching the videos, and sitting right next to each other. They are actively engaging with the video, both in the external interaction between them and in the internal ideas being generated in their minds.

And what else is happening for the mom and daughter that day? It’s in the midst of a fun and connecting adventure that morning. Before getting on the train they were looking out and around at the train station and excitedly waiting for the train to arrive. They got on the train, the daughter asked for the phone, they watched it together for 10 minutes while on the train, then she (voluntarily, without being asked) chose to hand it back to the mom to hold onto once they got off the train. They spent the next couple hours exploring the train station, riding a ferry, playing hide-and-seek at the playground, and wandering aimlessly around.

The phone was just another part of the day. Nothing special about the screen moments. But for the concerned lady, and many adults, the screen moments take on a special and negative status.

Most adults see the value of experiences in the non-screen world, e.g. playing with toys, reading books, making music, conversation, physical movement, and more. They see a vast world to explore, learn, be curious about, and enjoy. Screens can be viewed in a similar light! Kids can play games, read, create music, have conversations, physically move and dance with a video, and more. Similar (and different) experiences exist in both the screen and non-screen world. 

And the screen and non-screen worlds are not necessarily separate or distinct. Kids get ideas from videos that they want to play out on their own. For example, watching videos about “boo-boos”, i.e. where someone gets hurt and needs comforting, can lead to ideas for fun reenactments. Maybe a parent pretends to get hurt while the child cares for the parent. Stuffed animals might join in on the fun, either as doctors or as patients. A child might ask the parent to purchase doctor’s kits, stethoscopes, band-aids, to enhance the fun.

There are countless other ways that things from the screen world can come into the rest of a child’s life, e.g. singing and dancing to songs learned on YouTube, learning about machines, colors, language, animals, people, etc. This needn’t come from boring ‘educational’ videos or games. The above can all happen for a young child while following his/her interests on YouTube Kids and other fun apps / games. (Related side note: some support from parents, especially for younger children, can be helpful in finding new games the child might be interested in.)

It goes from the non-screen world to the screen as well. After seeing animals at the local petting zoo, a child can watch videos and play games with these animals in them. Cooking in the kitchen with physical objects later turns into cooking games, making (virtual) smoothies, having (virtual) tea parties, and so on. A young child that can’t yet chop food with a large knife then fry it on the stove can play out this activity on the tablet. These are just a couple examples among many others.

And the screen and non-screen world can exist simultaneously. Children can be both on their screens and having a nice conversation with their parents. Moments where your child is playing video games or watching YouTube can become moments of connection between parent and child. Maybe snuggle up next to your child and watch the shows together. Have an engaging conversation about the episode after it is over, or, you or your child can press pause to ask about something or talk about something during the program. What are you enjoying about the episode? Is there an interesting issue raised? What does your child think about that? Have you just seen some amazing camera work or lighting or an effect? Share that! It can be a wonderful opportunity to get to know your kids better and connect.

The flow between screen and non-screen moments mentioned in the story and examples above can be very normal for kids. When there is no coercion, when we have not made our children’s devices into forbidden fruit, they no longer feel compelled to attach themselves to their screens every spare minute, because there is no fear of loss. There is a freedom and a naturalness about how they interact with their screens, just like there is about other things in people’s lives that have not been distorted by coercive limits.

When we view screens through a harmful lens, elevate the non-screen world as better, and place limits on screen time, we can introduce all sorts of unpleasant effects. However, when we bring our curiosity and see things through our child’s eyes, we see that screens and non-screens can be intertwined worlds filled with connection, joy, fun, and learning.

See also:

Grant Goedde, 2022, ‘Screens as a natural, integrated, positive part of life’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/screens-as-a-natural-integrated-positive-part-of-life/

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