Screen time is not all bad for your kids. They can learn a ton from video games. And when parents and children are watching or playing together, kids are internalizing important social skills. Being intentional about the messages you send to your kids about media is a missing link in most parenting strategies.
In the 1980s, researchers at the Children's Television Network discovered that kids learned more from Sesame Street when they watched the show alongside their parents. They called it "coviewing."
Most experts agreed that coviewing was unquestionably better than placing kids in front of
"TV babysitter." For example, the Center on Media and Child Health explains that coviewing reduces fear and aggression, while increasing learning and discussion.
Still, most parenting wisdom continues to portray television as an evil, mind-rotting demon. The fear of screen time is so deeply ingrained in our collective imagination that an irrational opposition between outdoor play and media consumption is taken for granted. Many parents believe the choice is either/or: indoors or out. Trees, worms and grass are pitted against transistors, cathode ray tubes and Super Bowl commercials.
The dichotomy is laughably absurd. It supposes that kids can't participate in a moderate mix of myriad ways of being. Yet the divisive story remains ubiquitous.
One interpretation of Plants vs. Zombies, for instance, reveals an ironic representation of an ideological battle between the good natural spirit of flora and Zombie-like brainwashing that supposedly comes from entertainment and digital media. Pay close attention to the character design of the zombie villains -- football zombies, disco zombies, suit & tie zombies, etc. Suddenly, it becomes clear that, intentional or not, there's an implicit anti-consumer, non-conformist cultural critique underlying the game. Plants are the good guys. Brainwashed mainstream zombies are the bad guys.
Ironically, when I try to interrupt my kids when they're playing, it seems like THEY are the Zombies. The resources they control are not the only plants. The metaphors get confused. My kids also become single-minded vegetables with eyes and fingers glued to the iPad. Still, they are thinking and problem solving. Individualized gameplay might be better than television because they're more interactive.
These days, in fact, most storytelling is interactive. We consume most of our media through internet connected devices. And technology is so adept at providing 'adaptive feedback' that it proves to be an exceptionally effective teaching tool. In fact, a recent SRI study shows that game based learning can boost cognitive learning for students sitting on the median by 12%.
This is why I enthusiastically focus my writing on game-based learning. I've covered games like Dragonbox, which can teach even very young kids to master the basic mechanics of Algebra in under an hour. Likewise, my 6-year-old and I recently began working on his phonics skills using an app called Montessori Crosswords on the iPad.
Interactive learning games are fantastic. You'll be amazed at what they can teach your kids. But remember, they still work best when parents and children play together. This is the new coviewing. Researches call it JME: Joint Media Engagement.
According to a Joan Ganz Cooney Center report entitled "The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning through Joint Media Engagement," "Joint media engagement refers to spontaneous and designed experiences of people using media together, and can happen anywhere and at any time when there are multiple people interacting together with digital and traditional media."
Some games are even designed to promote joint media engagement. For example, Williamspurrrrg HD is a game that features "hipster cats." Players slide waxed mustaches, hats and bow ties onto adorable kittens. Here's the catch: Controlling the game requires more than five fingers. To win, kids need to play together.
I showed Williamspurrrrg HD to my two sons (6 and 8 years old) and within minutes, they were laughing, collaborating and playing together. They were not learning cognitive STEM or ELA competencies, but they were practicing social skills.
The thing about joint media engagement is that it is always a learning experience. Kids are learning whether they are playing 'serious games' collaboratively or just screwing around on the XBOX. The majority of learning is a result of everyday doing. "Parents indirectly influence learning by providing particular toys or media and by arranging excursions that provide new experiences and opportunities for conversation," according to the Cooney Center.
In other words, JME is happening even when you're setting boundaries and time limits on screen time. When it comes to media, the Cooney Center report quotes a 1999 study, explaining that there are "three styles of parental mediation: restrictive mediation, instructive mediation and social coviewing." Although these categories were defined in regards to television, it might be useful to think about them in regards to tablets and video games.
Restrictive Mediation describes the rules and restrictions we put on screen time. Some of these restrictions limit time, other restrictions filter content. When we limit our children's access, however, realize that they are still learning lessons about media. They pick up subtle messages about the things adults value. They notice that grown ups watch and play whenever they want. And because they have no idea what we're doing on our smartphones, they assume that maturity comes with the privilege of playing Angry Birds all day long. Unlimited access to media becomes one of the markers of adulthood.
Instructive Mediation describes what happens when we talk to our kids while watching a movie or playing a video game with them. Make it a teaching opportunity. Ask questions. Explain to your kids the ways to think about the media experience you're engaged in together. I've offerred tips on how to do this before. You don't need to be a therapist to be good at playing with your kids. They are smarter than you think and they do most of the work. All you have to do is engage. Just soliciting reactions is fantastic. Ask them what they think the next level of the game will look like. Even better, ask them for tips on game playing strategy. "Slight disruption of the balance of power between children and adults can be a powerful motivator for sustained participation." Instructive mediation is key for raising kids that are critical thinkers and intelligent adults in a media saturated world--kids who know how to THINK about the media they consume.
Social Coviewing is when you watch something with your kids but don't necessarily talk about it. This is what happens in a movie theater. This is what happens when I watch Phineas and Ferb with my kids. Originally, this category was imagined in a less interactive media world. But as parents, we might adapt it to our ways of thinking about playing video games with our kids. Think about the difference between just playing alongside your child and actually talking about the game you're playing. Either way, the child learns things about how her parent interprets the world. But more instructive play includes intentional discussion.
In the world of interactive digital media, we might add two categories. The first is a kind of parallel play that mobile go-anywhere devices allow. The second is an asymmetrical joint engagement experience that services like email, chat and video conferencing allow.
Parallel play is kind of like multitasking. I can be typing on the Chromebook next to my son, while he's playing minecraft. We engage in peripheral conversations, some tangential and some directly related to the game he is playing. I turn to search engines mid-conversation, allowing web-based knowledge to supplement our discussion. In fact, while I was writing this post, my son wanted to know how to build a Minecraft server, so I taught him to look for tutorials on YouTube and helped him follow the directions. But I never stopped writing.
Asymmetrical joint media engagement is also a regular event in my household. My ex-wife and I have joint custody. My children and I regularly email, chat and video conference when they are at mom's house. While interacting with me online, I hope they learn good web etiquette. I'm teaching them lessons about propriety and social media. They see the kinds of things I write in emails and chats. I model the way mature video conferencing behavior looks. Just as our kids learn the lessons of 'live' social behavior from their parents, it is our responsibility to teach them online social skills.
What does screen time look like in your household? How does your family practice joint media engagement?