Step Aside, 'Screen Time.' Make Room for 'Screen Purpose.'


Nov 17, 2015

Mother and son using a touch pad tablet on a plane

Photo by nadezhda1906/Fotolia

This commentary originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report on November 17, 2015.

With the official holiday shopping season almost here, it won't be long before American homes — already filled to the brim with technology — get another influx of "smart" gifts. By 2020, connected devices like these are expected (PDF) to outnumber connected people by 6 to 1 worldwide.

Of course, it's not just adults who are getting more tech-savvy. In 2011, 10 percent of kids under age 2 had already used a mobile device. A mere two years later, this percentage of diaper-wearing digital natives had almost quadrupled. These trends are forcing Americans to rethink how they raise and teach their young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics signaled the need for this by announcing that it will revise its guidelines on media use for the first time in 15 years. “In a world where 'screen time' is becoming simply 'time,' our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the academy said this fall in a release.

In 1999, the academy recommended that parents limit screen time to two hours a day for children older than 2. Younger children were to be kept away from screens entirely. The new guidelines will pivot away from quantity, focusing instead on quality. The key question: What kind of tech use is appropriate for young kids and what kind is not?

This isn't a new perspective. Experts from the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and many other researchers and educators, have long argued that the emphasis on screen time is misplaced. At RAND, my fellow researchers and I have explored how to move beyond screen time to define appropriate tech use.

Beyond the fact that screens are everywhere nowadays, it's important to remember that technology is simply another way to communicate, learn and play. It shouldn't automatically be regarded as a threat. Like any medium, it can provide both positive and negative outcomes. Whether technology helps or harms children largely depends on how it is used.

So how does society move beyond screen time when monitoring tech use of the young? How do parents, educators and others begin to regard technology as a tool for advancing a young child's development, rather than something from which to shield the child? These approaches, informed by RAND research on issues related to early childhood and digital technology, could help:

The technology young kids use should focus on educational, age-appropriate content. Devices should be age-appropriate, too — sturdy and easy to manipulate. Mobile devices could help encourage active play, while desktop devices may be better for reading or other sedentary activities.

Adults should supervise and help with tech use. Educators should integrate technology into the classroom to achieve clear learning objectives. Parents and other family members can serve as technology teachers at home and should regularly interact with children as they use devices.

Wherever possible, technology should encourage physical movement and social interaction, to avoid the risks of sedentary and isolated use.

The amount of screen time should still be a consideration, even though it should no longer be the be-all and end-all. Kids should be encouraged to enjoy a range of activities and opportunities for play and learning — and not disappear into only those that involve technology.

For these changes to take hold, word needs to reach educators and families. New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics are a good starting point, but more can and should be done to establish new norms for tech use:

Public service announcements from government agencies and advocacy groups that have conveyed the importance of speaking and reading to young children should be broadened to address appropriate technology use.

Organizations like Common Sense Media are already working on rating digital content for young children, but families and educators may not be privy to this information. Once better ratings standards are established, they could be better communicated via labels on packaging or links to ratings on iTunes, for instance.

Educators should receive ongoing training on how to integrate technology into early childhood settings.

Kids need good tech role models, adults who can help them understand their interactions with technology and champion technology use in the name of learning. A good tech role model might be a character on a children's television program, a teacher in the classroom or a family member at home.

Many states rate early childhood education providers based on quality standards. But these systems may exclude technology, or use screen time as the only measure. Integrating other aspects of high-quality tech use into the rating system could communicate their importance.

The bottom line: The world is changing — fast. So when it comes to kids and technology, the discussion should be less about screen time and more about “screen purpose.”

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.