One of the most controversial topics I ever touch on is the issue of “screens.” There are a lot of strong feelings on the topic, but it probably won’t surprise anyone that I fall squarely on the side of more options rather than less, fewer limits rather than more. Seeing as this topic is a big one, though, I wanted to take some time to explore why I feel the way I do, how electronics fit into unschooling, the importance of self-direction, and some reasons why screens might not really be so scary. I hope that, whether you agree with me or not, you find some thoughts worth considering and links worth reading in this exploration of the important place screens can have in a child’s life.
When I think about the distinguishing features of unschooling, one of the first things that comes to mind (I would think unsurprisingly) is that learning is self-directed, which means the learner themselves is deciding what activities to pursue. When self-direction is the goal, a myriad of options are usually given by the adults in a child’s life, a variety of tools made available. Unschooling, to me, is all about providing more options, more choice, more freedom in learning. So I find myself puzzled when some choose instead to narrow options, allowing children to “self-direct” only in a range deemed acceptable by concerned adults. While it’s undeniably important for adults to provide help, support, and guidance, choosing to cut out–or severely limit–one of the biggest available windows into the wider world seems counter-intuitive.
My sister and I are part of the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet. My family got our fancy dial-up service when I was 5 or 6, my sister a couple of years younger, and we delighted in Neopets and other online games, the ability to make our own pages and blogs, to search out any questions we had (though admittedly there was a far smaller database of information to be had 20 years ago), to chat with friends, and to find communities of people who shared experiences and interests that I didn’t have access to in my daily in-person life. My life was intimately shaped by this new technology in overwhelmingly positive ways, and it most certainly lead to friendships, real world connections to local groups and events, and important discoveries–like my love of blogging and my sister’s love of fiction writing.
Sometimes people, in their advocacy for a screen-free childhood, say some variation of can’t you feel what it does to you? And I can. I feel it opening up possibilities.
While some people are convinced that there’s solid science on how awful screens are for children (no thanks to the prevalence of scare-mongering pop-science pieces that show up with startling regularity), the reality is a lot more complicated, and there is no scientific consensus that Screens Are Bad. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics backed off of its hardline–and severely outdated–guidelines on screen use for children last fall, as evidence of the positive aspects continues to build. For the most part, the fear around screen use seems to be the same old fear that crops up any time something new comes into popular usage, and while there’s still plenty to learn about how current technology affects us, the decisions people are making around “screens” seem to have far more to do with fear than science. This article, though a few years old, still does a very good job of addressing the “history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook.”
Even when it’s accepted that all screen use might not be bad, the narrative remains that while some people might be fine with “screens,” others will become hopelessly “addicted” if not rigidly controlled. To start with, I’m really uncomfortable with how casually the term “addiction” is thrown around: in the same way an overly controlling boss isn’t “OCD” and a friend who gets upset faster than expected isn’t “bipolar,” a child who spends more time online than their parent would like isn’t “addicted.” It’s important to note that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes “video game addiction” only in the section reserved for subjects which need further study, and while the DSM certainly isn’t infallible, that’s a good sign of how little evidence there currently is to support the addiction argument. Undoubtedly almost any activity can be taken to unhealthy extremes, but to single out any one activity as being more dangerous without sufficient evidence seems unreasonable. And while parents certainly want to help their children make good choices, their children will eventually–sooner rather than later if they’re in their teens–be making ALL of their own decisions, so shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to learn self-regulation? And if the goal is self-regulation, doesn’t it make sense to let children get as much practice at making their own choices as possible, before they’re out on their own for real? As one of my favorite quotes from Alfie Kohn says, “’The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.” Or put a different way by Mimi Ito: “The longer parents play time cop, the longer it takes for kids to learn self-control.”
It’s undeniable that the internet provides access to a repository of information unlike any other in human history, and with that in mind, deciding children are better off screen free seems extremely limiting. But even beyond that, “merely” playing on computers (or gaming devices, or phones…), one of the biggest targets of anti-screen rhetoric, is also a positive part of many people’s lives. In a truly excellent piece by Peter Gray, he references studies showing some of the effects of gaming: “Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in online video games.” He further elaborates on the social aspects of gaming, pointing out that “Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote social interactions and friendships. Kids make friends with other gamers, both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.”