Just about every week new articles warn about the dangers of excessive screen time for childhood development. That can leave parents and educators feeling a sense of anxiety about technology and kids, even as more schools use iPads and Chromebooks and other tech in classrooms.
Today on the podcast we're diving into the issue of screen time with a guest who for years has tracked research about the impact of screen media on children and young people.
That guest is Lisa Guernsey, director of the teaching, learning and tech program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank. She even wrote a book that's called “Screen Time” and a more recent one called “Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens.”
I have to mention I've known Guernsey for a long time. We both worked together 20 years ago or so as reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education, back when we were both just starting our careers. And these days we both have kids of our own, so this issue has moved from the abstract to the practical for us.
Interestingly enough, Guernsey actually avoids the words “screen time” these days. She says she now has a better way of thinking about regulating tech, including a model of how educators and librarians can become better mentors for students and parents.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How do you see the current state of debate when it comes to screen time?
Guernsey: I really get it when it comes to the anxiety because that’s why I started working in this line of research in the first place. I was a parent with a lot of questions and a lot of worry, and at the time my kids were really little. They were babies and toddlers, and there were so many headlines about what I was doing wrong essentially [as a parent] about what screen media was going to do to my kids’ brains.
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Back then, even before the days of apps and touch screens, there was still just a lot of hand wringing. And honestly some of it was well-founded. So I looked into the research. What do we know from developmental science? What do we know from the science of media and children? What do we know about how children are understanding something that's two-dimensional on a screen versus hands-on learning. And then I’ve taken that over the years up through the ages. As my kids have grown up, I've been continuing to probe and try to understand what research is telling us.
The one really big kind of takeaway that stayed with me is that this is not really a question about how much time children's eyeballs are looking at a screen. That's how we've been talking about it, but the words “screen time” had a lot of currency in our conversations about this. What people are really concerned about is not screen time. It's mindless time, or it's sedentary time or it's being alone and not having anybody to turn to time. That’s what people are really worried about. It's become a frustrating situation because it’s hard for the media to get that nuance. And so if parents and educators are only hearing about the headlines and not getting into the nuance, they really don't know where to go and where to turn.
Is there another phrase that you would propose instead of screen time?
I do like to say screen media instead of time. I say that this is a question of the effects of screen media. And then we can start better understanding the effects of media of all kinds.
Whether it’s the stories that are our kids and our students are experiencing [or] how they're learning to communicate themselves by what they’re seeing communicated through media. We can start having a conversation about learning and about literacy instead of just a question of health and wellbeing, which is still important in this conversation for sure.
The other piece that I’ve found helpful is to think about what I call the three Cs. So what is the content on the screen? So content is the first C. What is the context of that screen use? Is somebody sitting with the student? Are they working on a project together?
Then, Is this something where they're creating instead of consuming? And then a third C is the child—that individual student. And every student’s going to come with their own needs, their own anxieties, their own predilections about how they're using different kinds of media as well as their own—especially when we're talking about little kids. There are developmental delays to take into account. There are huge differences in development by age. So we can’t just do a broad-brush statement of banning screen time when we're not taking into account the three Cs.
Have you heard of these videos that have gone viral on YouTube for years now where parents are taking away the kids' XBox or phone and like smashing it with a sledgehammer or throwing them out the window? What do you make of these?
Yeah. Obviously they’re a sign of frustration. I think they send a really dangerous signal personally.
But a lot of us are feeling that we don’t have control anymore over how we’re using all these different devices and how our kids are using them. And we hate the tantrums that arise when we’re just snatching them away, and we wish we hadn’t snatched them away, but we hate that the tantrum is happening. And we just wish these things were out of our lives entirely.
But we have got to define new paths for thinking about learning, thinking about how children are using media in ways that build their curiosity and their sense of the world and their understanding of where the messages are coming from instead of just demonizing it because that's not going to get us anywhere.
Your daughter wrote an essay a few years ago pushing back about articles saying parents should take away kids’ phones, right?
Yeah, it was in Slate. So I sometimes write for Slate, and my editor there asked if I would write about this new data that was coming out that seemed to show that smartphones were ruining a whole generation of kids and causing them to be really depressed and unhappy, which is not exactly what the data shows. Causal relationships are really hard to get out of that data.
But what I did was instead of writing about my take on it, I asked my daughter, who was 15 at the time, if she would write it with me.
My daughter was irritated by this study to no end, and she was like, "Oh my God, we can't win as teenagers. You tell us to do this. You tell us to do that. You tell us we’re not allowed to do this. And then you take everything away from us, and then you wonder why we’re unhappy and why we’re depressed. You put all this stress on us. We have to get into college, and you tell us to do active shooter drills, and you wonder why we’re depressed. And then you say it's our smartphones, and the only way we can ever even communicate with our peers to deal with all this stress is through our smartphones. So it was a really interesting piece.
Lately you’ve been talking about a new role in education that you propose for schools and libraries that you call media mentors. What’s that?
A media mentor is somebody who is [working] alongside an educator or a student or a parent mentoring them on the choices they might want to make with screens.
It's mentioned in different things that have come out from the American Academy of Pediatrics, [where it means] a parent who’s acting more as a mentor instead of being a strict authoritarian.
But it’s also something that in my work I’m seeing in public libraries. Librarians are recognizing that they already have a lot of the skills that are involved in curating and making the choices about different media—finding media that matches interests, searching, understanding sources. And they want to update the way they understand this in a digital context; they want to make sure they’re applying that in ways that help the community. And also they want to help teachers because a lot of the teachers are coming to them asking these questions.
So media mentorship programs are coming along in various public library settings. In Maryland, I was part of a program there where we ran book study programs. There’s a book out called “Becoming a Media Mentor” that was published by the American Library Association
What does it look like? Can you give an example?
In a public library setting, you may have a parent who goes to the children's librarian and asks, "We’re about to go on a road trip. I know that I really shouldn’t give certain apps to my kids, but I want to put a couple of apps on my phone so I have something for them to do in the back of the car. And I have one child who's almost reading, and I have another child who loves anything with Scooby Doo. Can you help?" And so the media mentor then can interview in a nonjudgmental way and talk a little bit more to that parent, that family member, "Oh, OK, so this is what you're looking for. Let me see if I can find things like this."
That person also can help that parent or educator think more broadly also about the connections between a print book that they might also bring on their trip and a game that they might put on their phone and a video that they might be able to then play together or watch together as a family and help guide the use of media in a way that leads to more learning and that also is just tuned into what the family wants or what that educator wants.
We’ll be starting to help with the development of this in Illinois in the coming year through Chicago Public Library and a couple other library systems out there.
I think school librarians and educators who are instructional technologists or who are in a public school space may already be doing a lot of these things too and may not know the term media mentor, but are in that same space looking for that same guidance, wanting to build up their skills. And the more that we can do to bring people together, learn from each other and then learn from the science of what works and what doesn’t, it could be a huge help to parents and educators.