There have been many changes to our lives, and even more so to our children's lives, during these past weeks of lockdown. One of the major adjustments children had to make is to their schooling. And inevitably this has meant spending more time on a computer, whether it is to join lessons via Zoom (other platforms also available!), watch recorded lessons by their teachers or from other online resources, or even doing their homework as more of it is on computer than usual.
Is all this additional screen time bad?
As with all the best questions, the answer is not a simple yes or no.
As part of our parents' guide to coding, here are our views on why not all screen time is the same.
Not all screen time is equal
Katie spends 30 minutes watching her favourite programme on TV
Jason spends 30 minutes playing a game on his computer
Anusha spends 30 minutes on a creative writing platform on her computer
How do each child's 30 minutes of screen time compare?
Watching TV is a relaxing activity. But children are both physically and mentally passive while watching TV. There is very little thinking required when watching. This is the type of screen time that many parents are keen to limit and there are many good reasons to do so. Hopefully Katie will go out and play with a ball in the park next, or perhaps a board game with her family.
Jason and Anusha are also physically not very active during their 30 minute activities, but mentally they are less passive. Jason is having to be alert and to think of how to do better in his game. Children are actually improving a number of skills while playing games, getting better at spotting patterns and training their brains to learn from mistakes and improve performance. However not all games are the same and the themes of some games can have negative effects in the long run. Games with violent themes are the obvious ones to fall in this category.
Anusha's screen time is very productive. She is learning in a very interactive way. Anusha's 30 minutes of screen time are as educational as if she had done the same exercises on a worksheet. Computer-based learning environments can offer some advantages over paper-based activities, such as the ability to adapt to the student's answers.
Although Katie, Jason and Anusha all spent the same amount of time in front of a computer screen, the type and quality of "screen time" they had is very different. This is why it is difficult to put a number on how much screen time is right for a child.
Luckily, most of the additional screen time our children are getting during this period of remote learning falls under the educational category. But there are of course some other considerations to make. Whatever activity we are doing on a computer, we are physically sitting down passively and looking at a display that is quite close to our eyes.
Regular breaks from the computer screen are important to deal with the physical aspect. If children are doing a lot of computer work at the moment, then the ideal short break would be to get off the chair and do an activity that does not require a screen. If possible, an outdoor activity would be best. This also means that children are not looking at things that are too close which gives the eyes a rest too.
Unlike other subjects, coding is one that cannot be done without a computer and therefore will always contribute to a child's overall screen time. However this is the "very good" screen time as coding is an activity that requires a lot of thinking and problem solving. However, because coding is a lot about thinking and not just typing commands on a computer, some coding can also be done without using a computer. When we teach coding we always stress the importance of planning and thinking ahead before starting to write a computer program. This part of programming does not need a computer and can be done on pen and paper, or in your head!
When designing our online coding courses, we chose to limit live sessions to one hour per day, even during holiday courses, in part to put less pressure on the screen time that children are having.