Stop Pretending That All Screen Time is the Same

Stop Pretending That All Screen Time is the Same

Categorized under: kids technology trends

Recently, the NYTimes published an article entitled, “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley”. This primary thesis of the article is that the technologists, who created the devices and the software that runs on them, are doing the best they can to keep their own kids away from these inventions.  

While that conclusion is intentionally shocking because it creates the illusion of an asymmetry of information; it is also misleading. If the people who made the iPhone and created Facebook won’t let their own kids use them, then they must know something nefarious about these devices and software that the average consumer doesn't.  Therefore, if we believe the article to be true, we should all begin following the Silicon Valley consensus and limit or remove technology from the lives of our children.

As with most persuasive pieces, this article conveniently ignores counterfactuals such as the recent report that the son of Google CEO is mining Ether on their home computer. And through that educational process, he feels as though his son is more knowledgeable about digital currency than fiat currency. This created an opportunity for a teachable moment within their household in which Sundar educated his son on how fiat currency works.

In reality, technological devices are not monolithic. And while there are use cases that may have the capability to create addiction and misuse. There are also equally positive use cases that include learning how technology works so that this understanding can be used to solve really difficult problems using this technology. And ultimately, those who develop expertise with these new tools will be the ones who create new innovations and inventions that will make the world a better place.

1. Content Consumption vs. Content Creation

The benefits of screens as learning tools are overblown is one of the bolder positions the articles takes. In order for this to be true, the author chooses to focus exclusively on the consumption aspects of devices which includes watching videos, playing video games and using cellphones.

However, this ignores the fact that devices are also used to learn how to code computers.  As technologists learn and refine their craft, they create increasingly complex programs. These computer programs may used to make the world a better place through technologies like autonomous vehicles that are projected to dramatically improve transportation safety. 

While not everyone will become a computer programmer, only highlighting the consumption use case does a disservice to the multiple capabilities of technology.

In addition, we use all manner of technology within our workplaces. From cloud storage for our documents to email for communication, one could argue that technology underpins a significant portion of how modern day work is accomplished. 

For kids, they can utilize tools like Khan Academy to upload their standardized test scores. This enables a customized learning program to be developed in which these students can focus in on practicing their deficiencies. In the past, a one-sized-fits-all approach that wasn’t powered by technology would have created tremendous inefficiencies for shoring up weaknesses.

The beauty of an engaging software platform like Khan Academy is that it enables teachers to develop higher quality interactions with their students.

To compare content consumption to content creation would be no different than saying that because fast food executives don’t let their kids eat their products everyday that we shouldn’t eat at all. 

On the other hand, we realize that food in and of itself is not inherently bad. However, there are certain characteristics of fast food that may not make it appropriate to eat everyday for every meal. The way to be more balanced would be to cook some meals at home and have fast food from time to time; not to eliminate food completely because fast food may not be as healthy as food cooked at home.

In fact, for those who learn about cooking, they often begin to make better and better food choices because they understand the different elements that go into making food taste good.

Similarly, those who truly understand how technology works can positively influence future technology development efforts. If we throw up our hands and say that technology has no redemptive qualities, we completely eliminate the possibility for improvement.

2. Overconsumption is always bad

Another central point of the article is that Silicon Valley parents have decided that any use of devices is bad. However, device usage is more nuanced. Watching 10 hours of video on TV would be on equal footing as watching 10 hours of video on an iPad. In fact, one could make a credible case that doing anything for 10 hours straight, except sleeping, could probably be shown to have a negative effect. 

In fact, each time a new technology has been introduced from the radio to the television and now the smart phone and video game consoles, parents have been concerned about the potential for harmful effects on their children.

It’s the responsibility of parents to make sure we do all we can to make sure our kids are protected. And having a healthy bit of skepticism about something that is new is no different from the diligence that should be occurring all the time.

There’s a reason why children have bedtimes and can’t eat candy for every meal. Responsible parents put limits on their children and don’t expect companies to do the parenting for them. 

Technology companies have made some amazing hardware and software products. But, they certainly didn’t expect parents to let their children use them all the time.

There is also emerging research that says that children’s addiction to technology may be driven by how their parents interact and engage with devices. If they see mom and dad exhibiting unhealthy behaviors with devices, they may be more likely to also have these behaviors.

New devices and technologies are certainly more accessible. But, addictive or obsessive behavior is not limited to technology.

3. Technology for the sake of technology will always be problematic

The NYTimes article also highlights that schools using iPads and smart boards were a disaster. As a result, one of the local school districts pulled back on its use. The wrong tools used in the wrong ways would be a problem for a plumber or a dentist as well. Using technology in a classroom should only be if it enhances the learning experience.

In my school district, they have changed the elementary school reading program curriculum every few years because the program selected has not met expectations for improving performance.  No one would ever reach the conclusion that because of these changes, reading curriculums are a disaster.

However, it is not as interesting to highlight that there are still challenges in selecting reading programs despite having decades of research about what works and what doesn’t work in learning how to read.

Just because some schools misused technology in the classroom does not mean that there is not a role for technology-based aides to enhance learning in the classroom.

At Digital Adventures, we often find there are non-tech ways to introduce and reinforce learning. We use whiteboards to broadly illustrate and introduce technical concepts. In fact, we often have a mix of technology and non-technology aides that we use when teaching students how to build with technology.

However, our guiding principle is whether or not the tool enhances the educational experience. Once that hurdle has been met, our instructional team is free to choose tools that maximize learning outcomes.

In addition, we must be willing to experiment with new methods including technology if we want to continue to improve the experience for our children. Sometimes, these experiments will work. Others times, these experiments won’t work. But, this is not an issue of technology vs. non-technology.

Being overly critical creates a disincentive for future educators to rock the boat because those who tried before were criticized because the experiments with technology did not work. 

Instead, it is better to recognize that there is always hype for any new programs including those that are technology-based. And, there are occasions when that hype does not match reality. There is no doubt that technology products and services are new and shiny which means that school districts may be more willing to jump on board for fear of being left behind. However, it is up to the school districts, advisors and parents to properly vet these new offerings to determine their utility. 


Overall, we are still early days when it comes to understanding the impact of technology on the lives of our children. However, we must be willing to differentiate between the different uses of technology in order to have an intelligent discussion about the pros and cons. Painting technology with a broad brush leaves us most likely to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Instead, technology should be vetted just like everything else that we put in front of our kids. And, if we find that there are issues with certain use cases then we must be willing to limit or meter that behavior.

On the other hand, if it is shown that learning how to be a content creator or builder of technology shows a positive effect either in the educational development of kids or with the positive impact their innovations and inventions can have on making the world a better place, then we must be willing to introduce additional opportunities to support that use case.

We could all do ourselves a favor by being balanced in our discussion so that we don’t unnecessarily skew the conversation without the data to support that view point.

About the Author: Omowale Casselle is the Co-Founder & CEO of Digital Adventures.