Sara DeWitt : 3 fears about screen time for kids
— and why they're not true


I want us to start by thinking about this device, the phone that's very likely in your pockets right now. Over 40 percent of Americans check their phones within five minutes of waking up every morning. And then they look at it another 50 times during the day. Grownups consider this device to be a necessity.

But now I want you to imagine it in the hands of a three-year-old, and as a society, we get anxious. Parents are very worried that this device is going to stunt their children's social growth; that it's going to keep them from getting up and moving; that somehow, this is going to disrupt childhood. So, I want to challenge this attitude. I can envision a future where we would be excited to see a preschooler interacting with a screen. These screens can get kids up and moving even more. They have the power to tell us more about what a child is learning than a standardized test can. And here's the really crazy thought: I believe that these screens have the power to prompt more real-life conversations between kids and their parents.

Now, I was perhaps an unlikely champion for this cause. I studied children's literature because I was going to work with kids and books. But about 20 years ago, I had an experience that shifted my focus. I was helping lead a research study about preschoolers and websites. And I walked in and was assigned a three-year-old named Maria. Maria had actually never seen a computer before. So the first thing I had to do was teach her how to use the mouse, and when I opened up the screen, she moved it across the screen, and she stopped on a character named X the Owl. And when she did that, the owl lifted his wing and waved at her. Maria dropped the mouse, pushed back from the table, leaped up and started waving frantically back at him. Her connection to that character was visceral. This wasn't a passive screen experience. This was a human experience. And it was exactly appropriate for a three-year-old.

I've now worked at PBS Kids for more than 15 years, and my work there is focused on harnessing the power of technology as a positive in children's lives. I believe that as a society, we're missing a big opportunity. We're letting our fear and our skepticism about these devices hold us back from realizing their potential in our children's lives.

Fear about kids and technology is nothing new; we've been here before. Over 50 years ago, the debate was raging about the newly dominant media: the television. That box in the living room? It might be separating kids from one another. It might keep them away from the outside world. But this is the moment when Fred Rogers, the long-running host of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," challenged society to look at television as a tool, a tool that could promote emotional growth. Here's what he did: he looked out from the screen, and he held a conversation, as if he were speaking to each child individually about feelings. And then he would pause and let them think about them. You can see his influence across the media landscape today, but at the time, this was revolutionary. He shifted the way we looked at television in the lives of children.

Today it's not just one box. Kids are surrounded by devices. And I'm also a parent -- I understand this feeling of anxiety. But I want us to look at three common fears that parents have, and see if we can shift our focus to the opportunity that's in each of them.

So. Fear number one: "Screens are passive. This is going to keep our kids from getting up and moving." Chris Kratt and Martin Kratt are zoologist brothers who host a show about animals called "Wild Kratts." And they approached the PBS team to say, "Can we do something with those cameras that are built into every device now? Could those cameras capture a very natural kid play pattern -- pretending to be animals?"

So we started with bats. And when kids came in to play this game, they loved seeing themselves on-screen with wings. But my favorite part of this, when the game was over and we turned off the screens? The kids kept being bats. They kept flying around the room, they kept veering left and right to catch mosquitoes. And they remembered things. They remembered that bats fly at night. And they remembered that when bats sleep, they hang upside down and fold their wings in. This game definitely got kids up and moving. But also, now when kids go outside, do they look at a bird and think, "How does a bird fly differently than I flew when I was a bat?" The digital technology prompted embodied learning that kids can now take out into the world.

Fear number two: "Playing games on these screens is just a waste of time. It's going to distract children from their education." Game developers know that you can learn a lot about a player's skill by looking at the back-end data: Where did a player pause? Where did they make a few mistakes before they found the right answer? My team wanted to take that tool set and apply it to academic learning.

Our producer in Boston, WGBH, created a series of Curious George games focused on math. And researchers came in and had 80 preschoolers play these games. They then gave all 80 of those preschoolers a standardized math test. We could see early on that these games were actually helping kids understand some key skills. But our partners at UCLA wanted us to dig deeper. They focus on data analysis and student assessment. And they wanted to take that back-end game-play data and see if they could use it to predict a child's math scores. So they made a neural net -- they essentially trained the computer to use this data, and here are the results. This is a subset of the children's standardized math scores. And this is the computer's prediction of each child's score, based on playing some Curious George games. The prediction is astonishingly accurate, especially considering the fact that these games weren't built for assessment. The team that did this study believes that games like these can teach us more about a child's cognitive learning than a standardized test can. What if games could reduce testing time in the classroom? What if they could reduce testing anxiety? How could they give teachers snapshots of insight to help them better focus their individualized learning?

So the third fear I want to address is the one that I think is often the biggest. And that's this: "These screens are isolating me from my child." Let's play out a scenario. Let's say that you are a parent, and you need 25 minutes of uninterrupted time to get dinner ready. And in order to do that, you hand a tablet to your three-year-old. Now, this is a moment where you probably feel very guilty about what you just did.

But now imagine this: Twenty minutes later, you receive a text message. on that cell phone that's always within arm's reach. And it says: "Alex just matched five rhyming words. Ask him to play this game with you. Can you think of a word that rhymes with 'cat'? Or how about 'ball'?" In our studies, when parents receive simple tips like these, they felt empowered. They were so excited to play these games at the dinner table with their kids. And the kids loved it, too. Not only did it feel like magic that their parents knew what they had been playing, kids love to play games with their parents. Just the act of talking to kids about their media can be incredibly powerful.

Last summer, Texas Tech University published a study that the show "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" could promote the development of empathy among children. But there was a really important catch to this study: the greatest benefit was only when parents talked to kids about what they watched. Neither just watching nor just talking about it was enough; it was the combination that was key. So when I read this study, I started thinking about how rarely parents of preschoolers actually talk to kids about the content of what they're playing and what they're watching.

And so I decided to try it with my four-year-old. I said, "Were you playing a car game earlier today?" And Benjamin perked up and said, "Yes! And did you see that I made my car out of a pickle? It was really hard to open the trunk."

This hilarious conversation about what was fun in the game and what could have been better continued all the way to school that morning.

I'm not here to suggest to you that all digital media is great for kids. There are legitimate reasons for us to be concerned about the current state of children's content on these screens. And it's right for us to be thinking about balance: Where do screens fit against all the other things that a child needs to do to learn and to grow? But when we fixate on our fears about it, we forget a really major point, and that is, that kids are living in the same world that we live in, the world where the grownups check their phones more than 50 times a day.

Screens are a part of children's lives. And if we pretend that they aren't, or if we get overwhelmed by our fear, kids are never going to learn how and why to use them. What if we start raising our expectations for this media? What if we start talking to kids regularly about the content on these screens? What if we start looking for the positive impacts that this technology can have in our children's lives? That's when the potential of these tools can become a reality.

Thank you.