I don’t think I’m the only parent who frets about their kids’ screen time. The Phineas and Ferb binges. Saturday nights playing Uncharted. It’s all turning their brains to sausage, right? Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik wants us to take a deep breath—and focus less on how much kids use tech and more on how kids can use tech to their advantage.
WIRED: You’ve spoken about the quality of screen time being more important than quantity, but I still suspect that it’s all terrible.
Gopnik: Think of high quality as children interacting with a screen while a caregiver is also involved and engaged. Children learn from that kind of interactivity in much the same way that watching a movie with an adult is better than watching something by themselves.
But don’t you think that phones sort of supplant play?
There are plenty of mindless things that you could be doing on a screen. But there are also interactive, exploratory things that you could be doing. My grandson is learning how to play chess, and that’s something that you can do on a screen—in real life, you have to actually find another person to play with you. If you have the right kinds of apps, you can do the same kind of exploration that children are doing in play. He also loves Google Maps—he wants to know where he is and see what’s around the corner. That’s a good example of what you can do with a screen that you couldn’t really do in real life.
Social media, though, strikes me as junk food—like dopamine Cheetos.
If your friends give you a Like, well, it would be bad if you didn’t produce dopamine. Now, what the studies show is kids who are messed up or vulnerable in real life are going to be vulnerable on social media. But mostly kids interact through social media or through texting the same way that, in the past, they would have done in other ways.
You must have some hard and fast rules about screen time though.
Using screens at night disrupts sleep—that’s bad. And some friends of mine have a technology Shabbat: Everybody in the family turns off all the screens on Friday night. Then, on Saturday night, everybody can switch back on.
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