Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Screen time and educational computer games

I'm no technophobe, but when it comes to time spent in front of a screen by children I get quite edgy.  This reaction is a mixture of my own observations on behaviour, concentration, eating and activity patterns, and from reading widely on the subject both as a teacher and more recently as a parent.

The official guidance coming out of sources such as the US library of medicine suggests that screen time should be avoided completely for children under two years old, and limited to 1-2 hours a day for older children.  The current average is 3 hours a day watching TV and a further 2-4 hours engaging in other 'screen time' activities, such as computer games and the internet.  That up to a whopping 7 hours a day - as an average!  Longer each day than they spend in school (although the increasing saturation of technology into the classroom is part of this overall screen time figure). This link provides some useful information on the downsides of all that viewing, and some hints for how to ween your kids down to the 1-2 hours recommended:  http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000355.htm  Bill Gates himself limits his kids to 45 mins screen time on weekdays, 1 hour on weekends, plus whatever they need to complete school assignments.

Ollie barely watched any TV until he was over a year old, as I felt it was not necessary and there were plenty of other things to be doing.  He got a little screen time every couple of months watching Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs with his Gran and Grandad (something he still looks forward to), but that was about it.  He was just over a year old when we first introduced him to the computer - in the picture above he's about 14 months and enjoying an online Thomas medley and games as a rare treat.  Ollie was talking at just over a year old, and showing signs of abilities that were far beyond what the guidebooks suggested were in a normal range of abilities.  When I did introduce TV it was a couple of shows on cbeebies that he liked and I thought were of educational value, such as 'Something Special' which teaches Makaton sign language and is a useful way to get kids used to seeing children who are differently-abled.  These shows I made a point of sitting down and watching with him.  I wonder how much of his current high functioning is related to the time we spent talking and singing and playing instead of vegging in front of the TV.

Toby, on the other hand, has had TV from birth, since I found that turning the idiot box on was the only way to get Ollie to stop pestering me for long enough to give Toby his feeds.  With a newborn and a 2-year-old to manage, Ollie's screen time crept up and up, and his behaviour went down and down.  After putting an hour limit in place he returned within days to the sweet tempered, if highly active, little lad we knew and loved. My big guilty not-so-secret-secret now is that I plop the boys in front of cbeebies for half and hour in the morning so I can have a quiet breakfast.  We do still put our foot down and limit their screen time to an hour a day, rarely 2 hours, and also keep the content age-appropriate since cartoons aimed at even slightly older children seemed to result in nastiness.  The kids he used to go to a gymnastics playgym session with getting far too carried away with their roles as Ben 10 and whatnot, resulting in physical violence and general aggression from them in Ollie and his little friend's direction. I'm convinced that children need time when they're really little to be sheltered from aggression and violence, since whatever people say, small kids deep down don't really differentiate between real life and fantasy.  I wouldn't cross a bridge for years without my Dad stomping over it first out of a genuine fear of trolls, a la Billy Goat Gruff.

So that's my feelings on TV.  What about games consoles and PCs?  Again, so long as they fit in with my mantra of age appropriate and time-limited, I'm generally in favour of introducing children to computer games .  I totally respect parents who decide that their kids are better off without any screen time, but my own thoughts are that a little gaming, from time to time, gets kids used to the idea of the technology without them feeling like it's a forbidden thing to be overly afraid of (or attracted to) and without getting addicted.  Technology is without doubt addictive.  How many hours did my friends at school spend nurturing basic virtual pets when they first hit the market I wonder?  I gave up playing games like Zoo keeper and Sims myself because I could find myself glued to my screen all evening, looking up to find it was midnight and I still wanted to play on.  In a tragic case reported in the Scientific American last week, a South Korean couple let their 3 month old baby starve to death home alone while they played a virtual life game in an internet gaming room, ironically nurturing their virtual daughter while their real child was dying on her own.  This is an extreme case, but highlights our need to make sure our kids are technology aware and guided to regard games as a treat, not a right, and not a necessity.

How to go about introducing children to computer gaming?  As I showed above, Ollie got an occasional dalliance with the PC (about once a fortnight) from a year old.  We also have played Wii games with him.  The next progression I think will be to the Nintendo DS, which is currently sitting in a draw going dusty, but which will be resurrected later on in the year for educational games to help take the boredom out of long car journeys.  No matter how long the journey though, Ollie will still be time limited.

Looking to the future for the boys, there's a confusing array of consoles and games out there.  Companies such as Gioteck http://www.gioteck.com/ are a useful starting point for looking at equipment to buy, and pride themselves on being run 'by gamers, for gamers' and so knowing all the requirements gaming enthusiasts will have, as well as being at the cutting edge of gaming technology.  The best education game provision seems to be on the Nintendo DS, with games such as the brain trainer which may help with the skills needed to gain high scores on IQ tests (I know, that's a whole other can of worms which I'm not going to open right now).  My favourite for smallish children is the Wii because its ability to be a physically active multiplayer platform means that it seems the best suited for counteracting the negative aspects of computer game use, such as lack of communication and lack of physical movement.  It may be controversial, but I welcome schools bringing the Wii into PE lessons as a way of engaging students that would normally shy away from physical activity, so long as it is additional activity time, and not replacing other sports.  At home though, it is worth making sure you play with the kids as the games intended, since kids are quite capable of circumventing the good elements of the platform by lying on the sofa on their own swishing the Wiimote with just the same game success as jumping around the room laughing and mucking around with friends and family.

I certainly won't be denying my kids the chance to learn through technology since I think that gaming, carefully controlled, can have positive impacts on learning, for example in picking up languages through games such as Dora the Explorer, or fine and gross motor skills in using games console controllers.   The key is control.  You, as a parent are perfectly within your rights to limit screen time, no matter how much they might moan.  Studies show your reward will be kids who are better at communicating, more imaginative, perform better in school and are less at risk of obesity.  If you decide on an all out ban, that's cool too, but I worry a bit about the Willy Wonker effect where (in the Johnny Depp version of the film) total denial of sweets in childhood led to a lifelong obsession as an adult.  If you have older kids and they make a stink about it being limited, get them to read the research supporting your decision online themselves and they may even surprise you and agree :)

P.S. this blog post was sponsored, but the opinions I express are genuinely my own, and those who know me know I've never been backwards at coming forwards with my views on this :)