Thursday, 10 November 2016

Passive vs Creative Screen Time

Screen time...probably one of the most talked about topics when is comes to modern parenting. We can no longer ignore that screens are here to stay. Now, we, the first generation of digital parents, need to find better ways to manage and create positive screen time experiences for our kids.

Do you know what your kids are doing on their screens? Do you actively manage whether it is passive or creative use? Are you aware your approach to screen time has a direct impact on your kids' screen time habits?

Let's explore the difference between passive and creative (or constructive) screen time.

A recent study (summer 2016) by the London School of Economics - Families and Screen time: Current Advice and Emerging Research - highlights a disparity in how parents manage digital media use and screen time. A constructive debate following my talk at BFX Festival about digital parenting, pointed out parents are looking for support in knowing how to manage the increased use of tech in their family life.

The Problem with Screen Time

Screens aren't the problem.

Most family homes have several screens - TV, PCs, tablets, smartphones, hand-held game consoles. School-aged kids have access to screens at school for lessons and sometimes on the playground (their own or friends' mobile devices). Screens are an integral part of our daily lives.

We need to decide how we respond to screens in family life.

The LSE study discovered there is a lot of opinion in the media about the harms and risks of screen time.  However there was less resources and support for parents looking to create positive and creative screen time.

At Tech Age Kids, we are interested to support families to find fun, creative and educational uses for screens. We speak to many parents at schools, coding clubs and events and understand the need for better resources for parents.

There are many differences in responses from parents when it comes to screen time.  It ranges from banning or severely limiting kids to unsupervised free reign use of screens.

Digital parents can't ignore the issue. We need to take an active role to mediate our kids digital use for them to have a healthy relationship with screens and be prepared for a digital future.

You wouldn't expect a child to automatically know how to tie their shoe laces, in the same way we need to teach (and often repeatedly) good digital media use habits.

Too Much Screen Time

Many families are exasperated by the constant request by kids for screen time. Parents need to set healthy boundaries and get connected with their kids screen time.

The fact is screen time includes lots of different of media, from watching TV, to video messaging, to using a tablet, smartphone, PC and game consoles for a variety of activities.

If, for example, you only give your children 1 hour screen time a day, what does that actually look like? What are they doing on their screens? Does that only include the time spent on a tablet or game console? What about the time spent watching TV or using a screen at school?

Some families have the TV on in the background all day. What if, as a family you video message a relative abroad for an hour, then you child does some research for a school project and for some downtime plays a game on the Wii for an hour. That would equate to much more than 1 hour of screen time in a day.

The LSE study found the term "screentime" misleading and suggests parents shift their thinking from screen TIME to screen content, context and connections. They found parents who don't engage and limit their kids screen time, often led to a passive use of screens, as kids don't have enough time or the right skills to do anything creative on screens.

We argue that parents need to understand their children’s use of digital media in terms contexts (where, how, when and with what effects children are accessing digital media), content (what they are watching and using) and connections (how digital media are facilitating or undermining relationships) in order to frame their responses. Media Policy Brief 17

Most parents accept the fact their kids use screens at school for learning and are quite happy for kids to carry out homework tasks on screens. But there are also a ton of other fantastic screen time activities for kids to be creative and learn useful digital skills.

I actively monitor my boys (6, 8 &16) use of screens. Instead of being afraid of allowing them too much time on screens, I have become involved in their digital world. This has led me to discover many creative and innovative uses of digital media and screen time. In fact the digital age requires my kids to spend time on a screen, to learn skills like typing or coding or making digital things.

In my mind it is not so much the time spent on screens, but rather the activity or content consumed on screens. Staring for hours into a screen, passively consuming digital content or using screens as an unsupervised babysitter are not ideal.

Parents often lack the support and resources to make decisions on screen time. Parents' fear of the unknown and lack of tech skills can rob kids from truly engaging with the tech age and learning vital digital skills.

It’s time for a mind shift change.

Passive vs Creative Screen Time

Many kids are growing up as digital consumers. They don't understand how the technology works and they absorb an enormous amount of digital content on a daily basis. There is a big difference between passively consuming digital content and using screens in a constructive manner.

Passive screen time may include activities like this:

  • Browsing social media sites
  • Watching Youtube videos
  • Browsing the internet
  • Watching on-demand shows / TV
  • Playing games

In moderation, none of the above mentioned activities are bad. It becomes a problem when kids are allowed unmonitored consumption.

Creative screen time may include activities like this:

  • Learning a new skill
  • Coding a game, website, animation, app, etc.
  • Making digital music
  • Playing games
  • Digital photography and editing images
  • Creating Youtube videos
  • Making an animation movie
Connected toys we recommend for creative screen time 

What happens in our family?

In our family we use screen time as an activity with a purpose and set a time limit appropriate for that activity. This approach helps me to be engaged with my kids screen time in terms of content, context and connections.

We have 3 boys, aged 6,8 and 16, in our family and they are all at varying stages of screen use. My 6 year old is not allowed nearly as much time on a screen as his older brother. All our kids enjoy screens in a different way, so we don't have a blanket rule for all. My middle son loves playing games, and so I am conscious to give him enough time to progress and finish levels, but not unlimited time, because he keeps nagging me to play. Sometimes, I may even say "You can use the PC or tablet, but you need to choose a constructive activity and not a game". Last night he tried to code some music.

Our screen use varies during school and holiday time, summer and winter, and fitting in other activities, like sport, outdoor leisure time and hobbies.


It's important to remember every family will manage screen time differently. The age of your child will also play a big part in how much monitoring and mentoring you need to do. The best approach is to be engaged and teach your kids good digital media habits.

Take time to understand the difference between passive and creative / constructive screen use in your own family setting.

Let's also stop judging other parents, and don't be afraid to learn new skills. Share ideas of what works or doesn't work with other parents. Don't be afraid to change the rules on kids' screen usage.

Also see:

Blum-Ross, A. and S. Livingstone (2016) Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research. Media Policy Brief 17. London: Media Policy Project, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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