It’s not the time kids spend online but what they do with it that matters, writes Mark Bentley
Two headlines jumped out at me from my morning newspaper one day last summer: “Stop children bingeing on social media during holidays, parents urged” and “Encourage children to spend more time online, says former GCHQ head”. Both were equally interesting stories and both propositions were from people who know their digital onions. But which one was right?
On the face of it, these opposing views sum up neatly the conundrum that parents face and how difficult it is to boil down advice into a pithy instruction. What are we supposed to do? Cut back on screen time or encourage it? Parents aren’t too sure, but surely teachers can give the definitive, research-based answer?
As so often, the headlines don’t tell the whole story. The message to cut back came from the excellent Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, who published a report around a “digital five-a-day” approach which lays out a framework for parents who may be concerned about the effects of too much screen time on their children. The seemingly contrary argument was put forward by former GCHQ Head Robert Hannigan, who argued in The Telegraph that spending time exploring the digital world is equally as important as exploring the physical world and can help children develop the skills they and the UK need to be successful in a digital workforce.
I reckon that if you put Longfield and Hannigan in a room together, they would be in broad agreement about many aspects of screen time and its relation to digital wellbeing. After all, the digital five-a-day isn’t all about digital detox, even though the ability to put down your device is a key health factor and very much part of the equation. However an important element of online responsibility, she says, is to spend time online in order to “get creative”, utilising the potential of the internet for activities from learning to code to creating video content. The key, according to Longfield, is to encourage children to spend time online actively, rather than just passively consuming content.
Particularly for children with SEN and disabilities, technology and screens can aid learning and development in ways that old-school learning materials such as textbooks can’t. Tablets have been a fantastic innovation for a wide range of learning needs, with accessibility functions such as assistive touch and text zoom, plus the reading views to reduce unnecessary distractions. Assistive technology apps are also helping dyslexic students with tasks such as taking notes or writing down instructions.
But that’s just one aspect; the social element of gaming, for example, is often overlooked, or even demonised. Many children and young people who struggle with face-to-face social interactions can cope much better in an online world – and this can then support them with offline relationships too.
In his book A Boy Made of Blocks, Guardian gaming journalist Keith Stuart tells the story of his journey with his son who has autism, and how a well known game brought them together and helped with all manner of developmental difficulties.
So yes, we need to be careful not to use devices as electronic babysitters or to let them squeeze out time for fresh air or “face time” with a small “f”. However, we can make the most of children’s enthusiasm for technology to encourage their potential to get creative on devices and apps, not to mention learning about languages, sports and the countryside before putting down the tablet and heading outside to have more fun and put their knowledge into practice.
Mark Bentley is Online Safety and Safeguarding Manager at LGfL, a not-for-profit organisation supporting teaching and learning in over 3000 schools nationwide: