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Is screen time always bad?

As parents, one of the ten million or so decisions we need to make about bringing up our children is to take a stance on screen time. Most of us at codetoday are parents of school-age children so we know of this first hand, but we are also educators who teach a subject that needs a computer, and hence a screen.

Are the two things linked at all? Our assessment is: not really. Here is why?

There are two quite separate factors leading to wanting to limit screen time for children (and adults, for that matter).

The Physical Factor

The first is physical: sitting in front of a screen is sedentary and can strain the eyes. Having worked as a scientific researcher in fields related to ophthalmology, I can go on at length on the latter — but I won't! There is also the effect screens have on sleep if used late in the afternoon and evening.

These physical issues linked to prolonged screen time are present whatever the activity children are doing on the screen. Taking regular breaks from a computer is essential - on all codetoday coding courses with sessions longer than an hour, we take a short break and make sure children stand up from their chairs and walk around: the rule is that they cannot look at any screen during the break. Related to this is posture when sitting at a computer - we should encourage children to pick up good habits early on.

The Passive Factor

The second 'problem' with screen time is related to the activities that the screen is being used for. There are some activities that are purely passive: watching TV or YouTube, say. These activities are purely entertainment. Of course some programs our children watch are educational, but there's a limit on how much we can retain in a single sitting from a purely passive and non-interactive activity.

Then there are games. Some games are not ideal owing to their subject matter. Plenty to read elsewhere on this topic so we won't go into that here. With some type of games, one can argue that there can be some benefits from playing them: dexterity, reflexes, strategising… But the skillset being trained through games is relatively narrow and therefore prolonged periods are again not recommended.

But how about activities that are interactive and purely educational? My eight-year old is often set homework on the Mathletics and Oxford Reading Buddy online platforms, and indeed they sometimes need to prepare a presentation on Google slides about whatever topic they are covering at school. Although these activities are done on a computer, they require them to think and problem solve in the same way as if they're doing their Maths homework using pen and paper. They have the added advantage that they score highly on engagement meaning that children are more likely to want to do such computer-based learning activities. Besides, whether we like it or not, computers are an essential part of today's and tomorrow's world so we need our children to be computer-literate.

Coding falls very much in this category. Coding is first and foremost a problem-solving and critical thinking exercise. The enjoyment and fulfilment comes entirely from the satisfaction of getting the computer to do exactly what you had in mind - translating your creative ideas into actions performed by the computer. Using a screen for coding is at the opposite end of the spectrum from watching TV: it is a very active activity requiring the brain to work hard.

Indeed the reason to limit coding time has nothing to do with screen time but with the fact that children will get mentally fatigued, as they would after prolonged spells of doing any academic activity.

And always remember to give your eyes a break from time to time, and stretch your legs…



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