INASIA

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In a Time of Covid-19, Screen-Time Worries Miss the Point  

June 24, 2020

By Morgan Belveal

It’s not just how long children spend looking at the screen, it’s what they’re looking at.

Throughout the world, schools have closed down, and many will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Children will be learning online or communicating with classmates and teachers on their phones. At this moment we are reminded why Apple’s Screen Time app totally misses the point. It’s not just how long a child is on a screen (which these days may be a lot), it’s what they’re watching.

Even before a global health crisis changed the way school happens, the rapid change in technology over the last two decades had left parents scrambling to adjust to a new normal for children that inevitably includes screens, while trying to avoid what education and technology expert Anya Kamenetz calls “a generation of addled screen-zombies.” Many have focused obsessively on tracking screen time. But this brave new world is more complex than “screens bad, old fashioned books and playing outdoors good.” Preparing children for the future won’t happen by looking backwards to a world that has already come and gone.

Just as my friends and I needed more-experienced friends, crossing guards, and adults to help us navigate the tougher parts of our neighborhoods, children today need digital mentors or digital crossing guards to do the same online.

There is a remarkable similarity between the screens of today and the neighborhood streets of my youth. Just as my friends and I needed more-experienced friends, crossing guards, and adults to help us navigate the tougher parts of our neighborhoods, children today need digital mentors or digital crossing guards to do the same online. Kids need to develop good instincts and learn to exercise appropriate caution in their online surroundings—just as we had to learn how to choose friends wisely, which streets to avoid, which insects might bite us, and to not take candy from strangers. Today, these same challenges play out online, in a much bigger “neighborhood.” Just saying no to screen time isn’t going to magically equip our children to navigate today’s world or make them successful adults. So much of everyday life is navigated with screens now.

Jordan Shapiro, a senior fellow at Sesame Workshop, explains how grown-ups can help “referee a fair fight between scale and intimacy to maintain an honor code and reinforce the chivalrous ethics of participation.” Today, adults need to help their children balance the massive scale of connectivity that comes with the internet, while encouraging meaningful relationships with peers, online and off. They can help children develop a digital code of honor that will allow them to experience all the amazing knowledge and new worlds available online and empower them to recognize bias, propaganda, fake news, and cyberbullying, as well as poor-quality content.

While many adults see a screen in the hands of a child as a vacuum capable of sucking up the most meaningful hours of the day, screens are in part helping build the most connected and highly educated generation in history. If we fear the screen, children will not develop the digital skills they need to use screens for good. UNICEF’s Global Kids Online report shares research that may surprise most parents: the more time children spend playing games on a screen, the more likely they are to also use the screen for activities that build knowledge and strengthen emotional intelligence and critical-thinking skills. I’m not saying more Fortnite or Minecraft will turn your child into an empathetic genius, but empowering your kids to be confident online will give them better judgement of what is and isn’t appropriate.

These truths extend to all income communities—some where there is less awareness of the dangers of the digital world. For these kids, digital mentors are even more crucial. Low-income families often have less access to the opportunities afforded by technology, and they also restrict children’s screen time differently than high-income communities—a difference with serious short-term and long-term consequences. Low- and middle-income countries are more likely to restrict their children’s internet use due to cost. But the children’s resulting lack of digital literacy affects their ability down the road to compete for certain types of jobs and educational opportunities, and it reduces their country’s ability to engage in a competitive digital future. This disparity has a powerful ripple effect that is widening the gap between and within communities mapped in World Bank and OECD statistics.

Screens are here to stay, and failing to maximize their power for good will waste the opportunity to create a generation of digitally savvy young people who are aware of the dangers and challenges, as well as the opportunities, of the digital neighborhood.

Digital mentors can help communities leapfrog from zero connectivity to becoming meaningfully connected, ensuring that the web is not just a portal to video games but also a tool for broader access to information, education, and healthcare. A more equal distribution of the connected, digitally savvy populations that in many countries are concentrated in wealthy urban areas will help lessen inequality.

As you read this, no doubt on a screen, voices of concern about the negative impact of screens on our children’s development grow louder. There are worries about the impact on children’s attention span, on their bodyweight, on their confidence, eyesight, social life, and more. While, in reality, the research is mixed, it preys on parents’ fears. But screens are here to stay, and failing to maximize their power for good will waste the opportunity to create a generation of intelligent, digitally savvy young people who are aware of the dangers and challenges, as well as the opportunities, of the digital neighborhood.

So, what can we do?

First, stop stigmatizing screen time as bad. That argument is a nonstarter. Social psychologist Sonia Livingstone explains that parents who take the time to integrate their family’s values into digital exploration, and discuss screen use rather than simply arguing for less, are more likely to cultivate the digital skills younger generations need.

Second, invest in the skills of teachers, librarians, parents, and others to become digital mentors. A nurse with a tablet to show a child their x-ray can open their eyes to the power of technology. A teacher can introduce children to the largest bookshelf in the world.

Third, keep investing in smart, engaging content on the internet that is kid-friendly and fuels knowledge and development. The Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read initiative is creating and translating thousands of children’s books digitally in multiple languages. Good stories expose children to other cultures and ways of life, and even to concepts like social justice. Collections and stories that are particularly timely right now include the Let’s Read at Home Forward Together collection, the Girl Power in Myanmar collection (including The Factory Worker, The Village Leader, The Humanitarian, The Journalist), Rose Village, and The Unexpected Friend.

These are books that provide children around the globe with an opportunity to see their identities celebrated, explore the identities of others, and begin developing a moral code for digital exploration.

While the digital explosion of the last two decades does come with risks, shielding children from those risks is the wrong approach. Busy intersections also come with risk, yet we don’t prohibit children from crossing the street. We take their hands and we teach them to cross safely. We help them evaluate and understand the risk so that they can gradually develop the skills they need to navigate traffic, first by our side and eventually without us. With digital mentorship, the screen can be a doorway to possibility.

Morgan Belveal holds degrees in children’s studies, international educational development, and human development and is a program specialist for Let’s Read, The Asia Foundation’s community- and technology-driven solution to book scarcity in Asia. He is slated to speak at the upcoming World Literacy Summit in July. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Covid-19, Let's Read

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