March 8, 2021

John Thompson: Reviewing The Art of Screen Time (Part I)

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NPR education reporter Anya Kamenetz has released The Art of Screen Time, a parental guide to the use of screens both at home and at school.  John Thompson, a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma, has written a two-part review of the book that he calls “a balanced guide for parents struggling with the effects of digital technology on children.

The Art of Screen Time, by NPR Education reporter Anya Kamenetz, is a balanced guide for parents struggling with the effects of digital technology on children. It also provides a thorough, but not alarmist analysis of the myriad of interconnected threats of excessive screen time. It then offers constructive means for deescalating the blame game that today’s digital media sparked, and a hopeful set of solutions designed to reduce the inherent harms and maximize the benefits of digital technology.

This is Part I of a book review. Part II will focus on screens in schools. (FYI, Part II, Kamenetz explains how media technology has mostly added “sludge” to existing educational processes.)

Kamenetz explains that we live in a time where 2/3rds of children younger than 6 years-old live in households where televisions are left on for half of waking hours. We worry about school-aged children who “are spending more waking hours per week with electronic media than any other activity – including school.” But we all live in “the digital information ecosystem” with an “inherent bias toward clickbait.”   Moreover, to quote Tristan Harris, formerly a Google design ethicist, “the currency of the Internet … leads to the bottom of the brainstem.”

The Art of Screen Time reviews a study of 55 adults eating with children in a fast-food restaurant with about 40 using smartphones, as the kids escalate “bids” for attention. Although she doesn’t minimize or defend this and other awful examples of adults being distracted by their screens, Kamenetz places them in historical contexts, as well as noting the economic pressures that place mothers in especially difficult dilemmas. She concludes that digital technology is “channeling some of the darker sides of growing up that have always been with us,” and advises parents to pay attention to dangers of screen time but don’t overreact.
The book is written from the perspective of a young mother who is balancing work and family. It discusses research suggesting that today’s youth are suffering a decline in empathy, and that “self-presentation on social media may be increasing narcissism.” Research clearly shows that “screens and sleep don’t mix,” and disruption of sleep has serious negative effects on children. But, she also concludes that excessive exposure has small but negative effects on children, as well positive contributions. Two keys are the “dosage,” or the amount of screen time, and whether the child has a vulnerability to the addictive characteristics of the media.

Kamenetz reminds worried parents that interactive digital media may be as healthy as other kinds of play. She empathizes with parents whose understandable fears drive them to engage in the banning of, and surveillance of digital activity. But she makes the case that harm reduction is likely a more promising approach than prohibitions. Also, monitoring and imposing external controls can disempower children. And “development psychologists argue that self-regulation is a core capacity for an effective and happy life.” Surveillance and prohibitions can undermine efforts to nurture the self-regulation that they will need as adults.

Similarly, The Art of Screen Time cites Jathan Sadowski’s worst fear that the “slow creep” of “smartphones will let us live without self-awareness and self-control.”

Throughout The Art of Screen Time, the benefits of play are extolled. While it doesn’t necessarily endorse the simple, liberating rule that many Baby Boomers were handed, “be home by dark,” it draws upon experts like Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist, who recommend respect for children’s independence through “trust and mentorship and support and watching kids’ backs.” As Kamenetz explains, “Understanding how ‘geeking out’ and ‘messing around’ happen, and making space for our kids to do it, is Ito’s number one priority.”

And being a Baby Boomer who was taught to practice “creative insubordination,” I loved the call for “positive deviance.”

Seeking solutions for novel 21st century threats, Kamenetz tends to support solutions that are rooted in intergenerational sharing and longstanding childrearing successes. I was especially impressed that The Art of Screen Time argues that best practices tend to be “an extension of the mores of positive parenting with media.” She urges adults to “drop the guilt” and use media to connect. Parents and children should, “Enjoy screens; not too much; mostly together.”

Kamenetz endorses two parental habits: “sponsoring” activities (like driving kids to a tournament,) and “brokering or translation,” or helping connect their interests to other quests for knowledge and creativity. (It sounds like that process is essentially what my daily role was during class discussions.)

Of course, The Art of Screen Time is full of terrifying scenarios, but it also recalls numerous accomplishments. For instance, Educational Television produced numerous alternatives to the “Vast Wasteland,” which was the 1960’s label for mindless television.  It notes that watching Sesame Street can be almost as beneficial as attending preschool. Our society’s failures must not block out our accomplishments, such as Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and Doc McStuffins.

Kamenetz draws on the work of digital pioneer Seymour Papert’s “constructionism,” which echoed Jean Piaget’s “constructivism.” We can seek guidance from education technology researcher Warren Buckleitner‘s Children’s Technology Review for empowering, not disempowering children, and offering help in leveraging the positive potential of technology. She describes “Fanfic,” a practice of “noncommercial creative expression” as a tool for nurturing intergenerational connections before children are immersed in media connections with their peers.

Other more recent innovations come from the 42 million immigrants, who are using digital technology for family communication, which is often a cross-continental process. Another form of separation is created by changes in the family; in 2014, only 46% of children lived with two married parents. But, that prompted divorce courts to develop “virtual visitation” programs that minimize conflicts due to separations. For instance, “Our Family Wizard” is a program that even has a “tone meter” which monitors words that are likely to provoke conflict, in order to “foster cooperation and harmony.”

Kamenetz frequently reminds us of ways that our family connections have grown. For instance, in 1965, mothers reported spending 10.2 hours a week on childcare; fathers invested 2.4 hours. In 2011, mothers spent 13.5 hours on childcare while fathers spent 7.3 hours. And since families are smaller now, the personal investments in children have grown.

And the future holds promise for enrichment as well as serious threats from virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), artificial reality (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, there already is VR tool which allows people to “inhabit the body” of someone with a different gender, age, and/or ethnicity. Young people who experience it and walk in the shoes of the elderly have gained empathy and learned of the need to save more for retirement.

The real gains of this technology, says New York University’s Ken Perlin, will come from children because, “Linguists know that natural language is not developed by people over eight years old.” So, Perlin wants to let kids loose in creative environments, noting that “The Hitchcock and Spielberg  of VR haven’t been born yet.”

The Art of Screen Time also shows real-world examples of how AI, for instance, could create a “lifelong learning companion,” which would eventually learn to understand and facilitate code-switching in high-poverty schools. But Kamenetz concludes that kids will mostly encounter newly-invented commercial products like Hello Barbie which speaks sentences like “One place to learn a lot about outfits and clothes is school.”

Kamenetz closes her complex, nuanced analyses with several understandable and doable suggestions. She urges parents to start setting good habits in preschool years. She describes family policies that can limit screen time and/or help set priorities. Preferably those rules will be devised collaboratively. Parents are urged to “practice joint media engagement and active mediation at least some of the time.” Families should observe screen-free occasions, like dinner. And, they should emphasize trust and support, over surveillance, where parents “trust, verify, and then respect their (children’s) privacy.”

A second post will focus on Kamenetz’ evaluation of screens in school.

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