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Hold the pitchforks – screen time could be a misunderstood monster

Schools that treat all tech as inherently bad risk depriving disadvantaged children of the hands-on experience they will need in later life, writes Ann Mroz

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Apple has introduced a feature called Screen Time in its iOS 12 update. It’s terrifying. It tells you how many times a day you’ve picked up your device, how much time you’ve spent with your screen on social networking, how much on reading and reference and how much on productivity.

I’m sure it’s meant to be for parents to monitor and restrict their children’s usage, but it’s a big wake-up call for adults, too.

We fret constantly about children’s screen time, but perhaps we should think more about our own. How many times are we on the phone, on a laptop? We constantly berate children for being on their devices and not reading books, playing, doing sport, but equally important is to ask ourselves: what could we be doing instead? If we want to ban phones for children in schools – and I see the argument from both sides – perhaps we should start by banning ourselves from using the devices at home during family time.

There’s good reason to do so. It is well evidenced that children need an environment rich in spoken language to develop into readers and thus achieve at school. It makes sense to suggest that if parents spend too long on their phone and not talking to their children, then that environment will be hard to come by. Likewise, if we are on our phones, we are not doing much relationship building.

But we need to be careful when it comes to children, particularly in education. Claims that screen time reduces IQ or ability have no evidence, says Andrew Przybylski, of the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute. Playing computer games may reduce the time available for homework but so will watching X Factor, kicking a ball around or staring aimlessly at the ceiling. We are singling out computer games – or screen time – as a value judgement, not a factual one.

Don't make screen time the bogeyman

We are also in danger of creating a Frankenstein’s monster – bolting together lots of things to create a bogeyman we have decided to call screen time. In doing so, we have mashed together everything from shoot-em-ups, through Google searches and word processing, to reading an ebook. If it’s on a screen and we are looking at it, then it’s bad.

That’s both disingenuous and dangerous. Young people aren’t stupid. They know that all screen time isn’t bad and suggesting it is means that important messages become less meaningful. More fundamentally, we risk harming their ability to make the most of the modern world. If we decide to ban phones in schools (and when they are being used to “upskirt” or humiliate, then we should, if we can’t find any other way of dealing with the problem), are we equipping children with the experiences they need as adults? Do we risk creating another generation that has never learned to self-regulate? Almost everything we do as adults involves a screen at some point, so why would we rob young people of those experiences during their school years?

It’s being posited as a rich vs poor argument. And it is, but not in the simplistic way it’s sometimes put across. The New York Times recently reported how the wealthy are sending their children to schools that employ zero tech. Even Silicon Valley millionaires are doing it. But it is those parents who can afford to send their children to such schools because their offspring already have tech capital. They don’t need school to help them out.

Disadvantaged children don’t have that luxury. School is where they can gain access to all the good things about technology – tech that is not their Xbox. Some may not even have a broadband connection at home. In the US, a Pew Research Centre analysis found that 17 per cent of teens sometimes couldn’t complete their homework because they didn’t have a high-speed internet connection (a problem partially acknowledged in the Budget announcement about funding rural broadband in the UK earlier this week).

So, the next time you next check your device usage, check your privilege, too.

@AnnMroz