It has been common advice given to parents to limit the time their very young ones spend using a smartphone or a tablet. It is so common that no parental control service or app worth its salt doesn’t come without some way to limit screen time. But new studies are surfacing challenging those long-held prescriptions. Some are even encouraging parents to let kids spend even more time fiddling with devices. It’s not a blanket recommendation though and it’s based more on how kids spend their time rather than simply how long they spend it.
When you think about it, the recommendation to limit phone or tablet screen time is not that different from the recommendation to limit TV time. That already betrays the line of thinking, which, admittedly, is based on studies as well. Those range from “TVs turn them into zombies” to “spending too much time on screens damage their eyesight” to “they should be spending more doing physical activities than sitting down.
Simply equating mobile devices with TVs, however, don’t do these modern gadgets justice and overlook the fact that they are completely different things. Yes, they both have screens and both are used to consume content. But phones and tablets can also be used to produce content. In other words, these mobile devices are interactive devices rather than passive ones like TVs.
There lies the spirit of the new studies cited by The Wall Street Journal. Research and guidelines springing from such research should distinguish between passive and active screen time. Passive screen time is all about consumption, like watching videos, and does carry the same dangers and concerns as TV time. But it is the active use that researchers and educators are more interested in and encourage.
Unlike TVs, smartphones and tablets are interactive. They can offer a broad range of experiences not possible with TVs, from video chats to even coding. These offer “extraordinary learning” opportunities that have never before been possible, even with the computers of decades past. These should be encouraged instead of limited.
Of course, these studies don’t deny the other dangers of spending too much time attached to screens, interactive or otherwise. Use should be limited to give kids time to rest their eyes, to encourage physical activity (though there are apps for that too!) and social interaction, or even to induce necessary boredom that leads to creativity and imagination. At the very least, parental guidelines and apps should at least consider passive screen time and active use as two different things and not to lump them together as one big bad thing.