Even when we were children, there were recommended limits to our TV time. Quite apart from making your eyes grow square, it detracted from healthy outdoor play, make believe and reading. Those threats still stand, but what other risks have arisen in the age of personal tablets and phones?
Instant gratification - good things come to those who wait
Instant gratification is a dangerous thing for young minds. Computer games – even educational ones – offer a constant stream of positive reinforcement for very little effort, and it can be addictive. That “hooray” moment when a computer game level is completed or someone likes or responds to your social post easily becomes compulsive.
As a result, the new generation rarely get the opportunity to develop patience. They don’t even need to wait until 4pm on Tuesday for their favourite program: it’s instantly available on YouTube and so is the rest of the box set. Without the ability to wait for a reward, children can fail to build intrinsic perseverance for long tasks.
Try, try again
Teenagers now are spending around six hours a day playing computer games instead of forming the close personal friendships that come with the normal creative outdoor risk-taking that teens used to be renowned for. Racing shopping trolleys, rescuing a friend from a capsized home-made dinghy, or lamenting another heartbreak with a mate might not seem valuable at the time but each overcome crisis both empowers a young person with the confidence to tackle a larger, future one and forms deep friendships.
In his excellent Inside Quest talk about Millennials in the Workplace, Simon Sinek explains that young people now are entering adulthood completely bereft of the personal confidence to brush off failures and try again when professional challenges don’t go their way. They also lack the personal support network of deep friendships on whom to fall back. He likens it to alcoholism: having spent their formative years turning to a screen for emotional support, that’s all they have to fall back on as adults. That means that long term, when a problem is difficult at work, there is no internal or external grit there to plough on and beat it. They feel constantly unsatisfied and their lack of staying power makes them poor employees.
Taking away from infant learning?
Of course, some screen time can be highly educational: using an e-reader to enjoy a novel, engaging in a progressively challenging drawing or reading game or discussing a film/story with an adult can all promote language, numeracy or fine motor skills. The presence of an adult is an important factor. However, time spent alone watching low-quality content such as computer games and poor You Tube shows can detract from other, more valuable pursuits.
Why is outdoor play important anyway?
Participation in games, particularly in an outdoor environment, is critical partly for physical health but more crucially because they allow a young person to experience risk. As they overcome this risk, their brain develops strategies and boundaries for future, larger challenges. The New Scientist has a good round-up here. As well as this confidence, children and young people learn to negotiate with others. Negotiation is the ability to conduct two-way debates, to compromise, to press and modify your own wants and to gain agreement from others. The value of this skill set – gained from free play – is so influential in learning and problem solving that it is often cited as another good reason our children should be kept out of school until age 7, like the children in Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
Doing direct damage?
Doctor Mary Aitken says that 60 minutes of unstructured play per day is vital: “This is when a child uses imagination and creativity, when he or she practises decision-making and problem-solving, develops early maths concepts, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.”
This is echoed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers who warn that many children arrive at school able to swipe screens but have such poor fine motor skills that they can’t manipulate building blocks. Furthermore, some are up so late they are unable to learn, and others are already showing signs of inability to socialise and communicate properly.
The key thing, experts explain, is that children be educated in the positive uses of screen technology.
In fact, the University of Oxford has found that screen time can be beneficial in terms of creativity and communication if used properly and to time limits: “For smartphones the ‘sweet spot’ was around two hours and one hour 40 minutes for video games.”
What can we do?
Whilst this issue is largely out of the classroom, parents and children can be supported to make better choices and teens can be made more aware of the consequences.
- Integrate the risks into science lessons: eyes, weight gain, brain development.
- No Tablet Tuesdays / no Wifi Wednesdays (or any other catchy event!) Instead of homework, your students can produce some other evidence of their adventures, either in mixed media or verbally the following day.
- Keep parents informed of research evidence with this sort of content in your newsletters.
- Avoid using tablets as a reward or punishment: it encourages it as a ‘treat’.
- Keep reinforcing the other uses of tablets: research, reading, music, news…
- Publicise other weekend and after-school events locally, especially free ones. Schools are normally part of a rich local culture of fairs, shows, church events and festivals that often the most vulnerable of families are simply not aware of.
Does your school have a helpful way to cultivate positive tablet culture for your learners? Let us know how!
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.