If your kids appear to be wasting away in front of a screen, do not despair – they might actually be learning something! At the very least, you might be able to make screen time better for your kids. There is compelling evidence that video-game play can be a form of cognitive exercise and that kids can improve skills such as selective attention, spatial reasoning, and cognitive flexibility from screen time. However, while these improvements are often limited to a narrow skill and do not generalize or transfer to other areas of children’s lives, that doesn’t mean we should not try to make screen time better for your kids.
I encourage skeptics – those who think that all screen time is wasted time – to watch their kids while they are on their phones, searching through Youtube, or posting to Instagram. Beyond the mastery of technology, a lot of thinking is taking place. For example, kids who create videos need to use skills such as organization, planning, and social awareness in considering who will watch their video and what they will experience. And while texting is not proper English (or whatever language is spoken in your home), it has a clear set of linguistic rules and requires expertise. Observe your child playing Minecraft or another sandbox game such as Fortnite and you will see the planning, problem-solving, handling frustration, and flexible thinking that are required.
A simple tweak to make screen time better for your kids is to get them thinking about their thinking when they are using screen-based media. Thinking about one’s thinking, or metacognition, is a key for deeper learning. It might be as easy as telling your kids that you’d feel better about their screen time if you knew they were thinking about what they do when they are engaged with technology. Encouraging reflection about their thinking might help them better connect their screen-based learning to the real world. Once they have the mindset that they are practicing useful skills in their screen time, they are more likely to be thoughtful about that. It might also get them to consider when they are spending too much time in front of a screen.
Our LW4K LIVE programs use a variety of other strategic teaching strategies that make screen time better for your kids. Here are a few we use that you could also adapt for home or in the classroom:
Previewing – “prime the pump.” Help children realize what types of skills they will be using in their screenplay. You can learn specifics about the skills required in our game and app guides. Essentially, we tell kids what to pay attention to and what is most important to take away. Research shows that knowing what is going to happen in the video game helps in learning skills.
Find teachable moments. Ask questions while observing your kids engaged with screens and get them to talk about what they are doing in the moment. Help them to connect their actions to other areas of their lives.
Partner with the kids. Use your screens to learn similar skills and help them to have the same goals. Provide an activity (e.g., show that dictation is faster than writing, that organizing a box of Legos makes building with them easier) that helps them to see the rationale for learning and applying new skills.
Encourage questions. In our LW4K LIVE classes, we ask questions or get the kids to ask each other questions. One of the best ways to learn a skill is to be quizzed on it, rather than just repeating it. Quizzes, questions, and discussion promote insight, reflection, and metacognition that help children know how to apply the skills across settings.
Generalization is the key. While our first goals are awareness, knowledge, and understanding of the skills used in screen time, the ultimate goal is to be able to use these skills. Generalization and transfer are the ultimate goals: helping kids to practice skills they use in their screen time in other settings, with other people, and with different requirements.
We encourage parents, educators, and clinicians to use our game and app guides and our other written materials to make screen time into learning time. It’s even better if your kids join our LW4K LIVE classes and then continue to work on targeted skills at home and school. Check out the latest classes here.