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Balancing Screen Time And Learning

It’s essential for educators and family/caretakers to take stock of this and constantly re-evaluate priorities. The lines are about to get more fluid and we should be prepared to optimize a balance!

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The conversation around how much time in front of a screen is healthy, for a child, is perhaps older than the term ‘screentime’ itself. It goes back to the (golden) age of television or in an Indian context, ‘cable TV’. Many of us remember the typical middle-class reproaches “...don’t sit too close to the TV, it’s not good for your eyes” or “...not until you’ve finished your homework”. That was when screens and learning existed with little-to-no overlap. However, that has dramatically changed and it’s necessary that we acknowledge it.

Now, screens are where ALL forms of content are accessible. Gen Alpha–those born between 2010 and 2024– have only known this ecosystem. They experience screens as a multi-purpose spectrum and this informs their worldview. But this hyper-connectedness with digital media and interactive technologies–from tablets and smartphones to other internet-enabled devices–was already in place before the pandemic. 

However, the onset of COVID-19 deepened formal education’s dependency on tech. Schools and higher educational institutions suddenly had to use tech for daily instruction and for everything else. Screens were no longer complimentary, but an absolute essential. Almost ironic how they salvaged the learning of millions, during such a vulnerable time. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) had to reevaluate their prior screen time recommendations. Pre-COVID, the gold standard was less than 2 hours a day for children aged 2-4 years. Now, many organizations - the WHO, AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) and IAP (Indian Academy of Pediatrics) believe it’s not as simple as a ‘time limit’. Rather, a far deeper analysis of content is necessary - what they watch and when, what their activities before and after look like, whether the content itself has prosocial aspects, who else engages with it, what algorithms are in place and much more. Thus, suggesting blanket 'time' recommendations is difficult, and importantly, decreasingly relevant.

Here comes the worry of a parent. In this dynamic, somewhat murky climate where screens are an integral part of their child’s life, how do they find a balance between learning and casual entertainment? Further, what is learning and what is entertainment? Does intermingling create an environment where monitoring is difficult?

To strike a balance, the focus is slowly shifting from ‘time’ to ‘quality’. This approach better and more realistically facilitates a future where almost everything from experimental art to deep-end sports research occurs via digital interfaces. Gen Alpha will learn and share ideas through these interfaces. This can be a tricky balance for parents. Let’s delve into a few ways to maximize it: 

Screens can be GOOD
From free digital libraries to screen-based toys that blur the lines between formal science education and play to minimise learning aversion; there is plenty of GOOD to be had. If the merits of screen time can be acknowledged, we will be in a place to actively find more ways to utilize their potential for learning.

Get involved
Many STEM and STEAM toys, especially ones built for early learners, offer great opportunities for parents to be part of their child's play. Research has shown the benefits of this parent-child emotional connection with regard to grasping concepts. Additionally, this makes negotiating a balance easier.

TALK about the detriments

Often, it's easy to simply declare a certain habit as 'bad' or 'unproductive'. But don't be afraid to go into the details of WHY. Does excessive screen time cause a lack of emotional regulation? Sit down with your child and show them age-friendly pictorial representations of research. With educational and parenting styles shifting increasingly towards reasoning over authority, this is an approach that Gen Alpha responds to best.

Create bridges between learning and play
If your child has just studied about a certain concept–say gravity or refraction–then try to talk about it in the context of play. This is the genius of modern STEAM toys—they offer gamified contexts to apply academic concepts. As a result, the learning itself never really stops.

Where do we go from here?
It’s clear that tech will continue to pervade our lives in many ways. It’s also clear that there are potential detriments to this. The risks of engaging, or over-engaging, with technology are many—from mental health issues to sedentary lifestyles (which are a gateway to many medical problems). However, the advantages are plenty. From an informed, sensitized worldview to rapid knowledge-building, quality academic engagement, and an increasingly fun learning environment. Let’s not discount the increasing diversity and creativity in entertainment either! It’s essential for educators and family/caretakers to take stock of this and constantly re-evaluate priorities. The lines are about to get more fluid and we should be prepared to optimize a balance!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Vivek Goyal

The author is the Co-founder of PlayShifu. A Stanford GSB graduate, his background includes eBay, P&G and his own startup in silicon valley.

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