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Leisure time: Screen time

Updated Tuesday 4th January 2005

How can we keep our children safe without depriving them of all computers have to offer? Keri Facer explores how computers can be a valuable tool for learning and social interaction.

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It’s often said that the children growing up today, in a world of multiple, international non-stop television channels, the internet and computer games, are radically different from the generations that have gone before them. They’ve been described by some researchers as ‘digital natives’ – at home in a world of rich audio-visual technology and by others as ‘aliens’, as though coming from another planet with languages and references that the rest of us can’t understand.

Now while it’s certainly true that there are new technologies (seemingly ever increasing) that we perhaps didn’t grow up with, and that there are new ways of communicating, playing or telling stories that we probably couldn’t have imagined when we were five years old, there are despite this some things that stay the same. These children will still want to grow up loved, still want to have friends, still enjoy mucking around, still have passions and interests – they may sometimes seem like ‘aliens’ but we have a lot in common with them.

One of the difficulties with talking about the media and children is that essentially, we like to think we can protect our children from the outside world, and yet, here is the television or the internet, in our living rooms and our sitting rooms, bringing the outside world into our home. It’s a potentially uncomfortable relationship – we want to know that we can draw on the best the world has to offer, to access the information and the experiences available, but at the same time we want some measure of control over how our children learn to live in that world. What’s different about television, the internet and computer games is that we may sometimes leave our children to navigate this world completely on their own. There are many parents who see the television as a babysitter, or the computer as the ‘children’s machine’ and are slightly concerned about beginning to get involved with it.

This can’t make a lot of sense; we expect to talk to our children about what they have seen and done if they spend time in the park or the street, and we wouldn’t expect them to cross the road on their own for the first time,. Instead of seeing screen media as a whole separate space then, we too need to learn to navigate it, to know what its pitfalls and its pleasures are, and to participate with our children in the experience. While age guidelines on films, computer games and television can provide some guidance, (in particular, the advice that a game is rated 18+ should probably be taken pretty seriously) these general rules can’t replace a parent’s own understanding that a particular game, or TV programme, is likely to be too much for their own child. This means spending a fair amount of time in this ‘other world’, and becoming familiar with its contours.

While this is pretty easy to achieve in terms of TV (we can all watch it and talk about it with children), this is harder with some of the new media. The computer can seem like a daunting machine particularly for those who have no reason to use it. One way around this, and it’s one that gives a huge amount of pleasure to many children, is to allow your child to teach you, to show you what they’ve found out, to talk with you about their experiences. Learning to use these new technologies with your children will also help you to decide whether you want to use some of the so-called ‘nannying software’ that is available to protect them from some of the less delightful aspects of the internet. Learning and using these technologies alongside them, and talking to your children, can also act as an opportunity to talk about online safety. In the same way that you get children to learn to look both ways before crossing the road and not to take sweets from strangers, you can, as you’re using the computer together, talk about how important it is not to give out personal details on the web or to meet someone in the real world that you’ve met online without bringing an adult along as well. Simply demonstrating an interest in their activities on the computer can be enough to encourage them to talk to you about any concerns that they have. In the same way that you can’t fully control the world outside your door, you can’t fully control the internet, but you can encourage children to develop the skills to navigate that environment as safely as possible.

Screen Media as social resource

It’s too easy, however, when talking about the media – whether film, TV, computer games or the internet – to think only about the dangers. Instead, we need to recognise that there is a long history of research into the media as a valuable and important resource for young people – in coming to know the world, in opening up horizons, in exploring sometimes difficult issues in a less embarrassing way than talking to your parents, in stimulating ideas, and in acting as a key part of talk in friendship groups.

When we think about computer games, for example, we often think about a child on their own in a darkened room (indeed, this is usually the picture we see in the newspapers). What this doesn’t show, however, is the way in which games can contribute to building social relationships – children share hints and cheats with each other, discuss how well they’re doing, swap games with each other, sometimes act as teachers and advisors to other children.

The characters in games or TV can act as a stimulus for creating stories, for playing with numbers and developing literacy skills (although let’s not start trying to make everything children do outside school educational – there’s definitely a need for space to muck around for fun). It’s not just the game or the TV programme itself that matters, but the social context that it is part of.

This isn’t to say, of course, that a child spending all of their time playing computer games or watching TV to the exclusion of all other activities should just be left to it – it’s helpful to have a mix of activities, in the same way that you’d encourage a child who read books all the time to do other things.

Playing and learning with computers

We often think of the computer as ‘educational’, indeed, computers are often sold to parents as giving children a ‘head start’. What does this mean though? Over the last few years, there’s been a fair amount of research in the UK and elsewhere into children’s use of computers in the home. What seems to be coming out of this is that the most powerful way in which a computer can act as an educational resource isn’t necessarily in ‘teaching them something’ – i.e. how to do maths (although there are some good programs around) – but in encouraging children’s confidence in their own learning. Growing up with computers, in many cases, means growing up aware that there’s lots of information out there; that they can talk to other people about things that they are interested in, and learn from these other people; that by fiddling around you can figure out how things can work; that there are many different ways (video, simulations, text, images, graphs) for thinking about and representing the same idea. These are all potentially powerful ways of thinking and learning.

One of the things that, in particular younger, children have difficulty with, and which we can help them with, is in making sense of where all this information comes from, in understanding that information available from a commercial organisation, from a school or from a lobbying group may put different slants on things. We can help here by talking about these sorts of things, simply asking the questions ‘Why do you think they’re saying that on that website? Who is this website trying to address? What other picture could be used to represent the same thing? What is this website trying to get you to do (buy things etc….)?

More important, and potentially much more interesting though, is the idea of encouraging children to act as producers in the digital world – to make their own websites, to create their own music or images, models and stories of the world. After all, if you can make it yourself, you’re likely to be in a much better position to understand how someone else has made theirs. In the same way that being literate means being able to write as well as read, so being digitally literate should also mean being able to play with and create in the digital world as well as being able to access information. While as parents we may not have these skills, we can learn them alongside our children and combine our experience of the world with their technical skills and enthusiasm. For some parents, learning alongside their children to do some of these things has helped them to develop whole new areas of interest themselves.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that some children have no interest in TV or computers at all – sometimes they just have other things to do. No worries there, they’ll pick it up if they need to later on. But if they’re scared of the computer, perhaps they’re scared of breaking it (these are expensive machines after all and lots of children pick up on their parents’ anxieties about this) it’s important just to explain a few simple things – that turning the machine off if it’s misbehaving does the trick nine times out of ten, that remembering to save what you’re doing prevents all sorts of problems, that the ‘undo’ button is one of the best inventions in the world and that computers are quite hard to break, although sometimes it does feel as though they’re just being intentionally difficult….

 

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