My kids are a bit older now, but when they were toddlers and pre-schoolers particularly there was a lot of well-intentioned advice offered to parents about the need to limit ‘screen time’. We were in the UK back then and on the receiving end of lots of NHS Health Visitor leaflets, about the developmental dangers of passive absorption of TV or computer games – how this would fail our young kids at critical phases of their brain development. I remember at one point being advised that no more than an hour a day for babies or 2 hours for toddlers was some kind of cut-off point, beyond which you would be actively harming their growing intelligences.
Every working parent or otherwise stressed multitasking parent who had ever popped on CBeebies to calm a fractious toddler or distract her whilst they unloaded the shopping or answered the phone, was well aware of the captivating power of the ‘electronic babysitter’, as well as their own sense of unease at coming to rely on its powers for increasing lengths of time.
Back then, a decade or so ago however, the lines were pretty clear cut. We had the TV, we had some basic educational type games as they got older on the family computer, and later on we had the Wii – but what was and what wasn’t screen time was pretty easy to define. Favourite TV programmes were broadcast at specific times, and screens were big shared stationary things that got switched off when you had finished using them, or somebody else used them for something different.
So much has changed. I was talking to the mother of a two year old the other day, who was clutching the family iPad whilst toddling about, safely contained in a specially-designed toddler-proof foam case. I watched the bright and curious little girl confidently navigating the touchscreen with purpose, and it was a while before she needed to interrupt our conversation and involve her mum to help her do something.
Did she want to watch Bob the Builder again, or do her stars finger painting, or maybe her storybook app? No, she wanted Nan-Nan. For her, the grandparents who live in a different country, simply live in the iPad – where she can talk to them whenever she likes via Facetime. I’d give her a couple more months and she won’t be needing her Mum to open the app either, she will just navigate her own way straight to the call and make contact herself.
After finding Nan-Nan wasn’t in, she wanted to know if she might instead be on the TV or the phone or the ‘pooter’ – because they had often Skyped her as well, and of course it made sense to a toddler that she might be hanging out in one of those devices for the time being. But Nan-Nan wasn’t available so she settled down to listen to an interactive story-book that read aloud to her, following the printed words of the story as it went along, and illustrated with photo-faces of her friends and family. She could easily find the stories she wanted using the big colourful icons for each one, and she knew where her folder was of apps chosen just for her own enjoyment.
Mum said they were thinking of getting a new iPad actually, as her daughter now used it such a lot, it meant the grown-ups didn’t get much of a look in.
It really made me think about how different things were to a decade ago, both in terms of what screens were available, and also what ‘screen time’ actually meant. For our kids it mean passively slumping in front of Teletubbies, absorbing entertainment coming at them in a one-way stream. Watching this confident and articulate tot make choices and interact with the apps she had chosen seemed a world away from watching TV, and of course it wasn’t her whole life – she was an active, outdoor child, the kitchen walls bore witness to plenty of traditional messy offline artistic endeavours and she was clearly well ahead in terms of verbal development and expression.
As consumer technology continues to develop in a convergent way, the distinction between what is and is not a screen will doubtless continue to blur yet further. We can watch movies on our laptops, browse the internet on TV and make video-calls on our mobile…. If grandparents live in the TV the way my daughter’s homework assignments now live in a laptop, and everything can be summoned in an instant from a multitude of devices around the home at a click, then that IS the real world as much as the online world.
Our children are growing up now into a very different life to the one we had, but for their sake we can learn to enjoy it with them, and embrace all it has to offer in a safe and proactive way.
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, February 21st 2014 ©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL