Tech Talk: The disappearing line between screen time and real time.

By: Gahmya Drummond-Bey

The time spent on screens shapes your child’s identity as much as the time they spend offline. An educator explains how to stop the scroll and make screen time more meaningful.

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Children today are part of the first generation to grow up navigating who they are both online and offline. When a young person signs into a game as “CATFRIEND19,” there are other children who only know them by this handle. But how are they showing up online? Are they kind? Are they intentional with their actions? Or do they simply view their actions as “screen time” with no true implications in the real world?

For today’s child, the line between screen time and real time is disappearing as they’re shaping two identities at the same time: How they want to show up online and how they want to show up in the real world.

Think about it: They are experiencing both worlds. They aren’t just passively consuming screen time, they’re experiencing screen time. And how they experience screen time is dependent upon how effective parents and caregivers are in teaching and modeling ways to show up with integrity online.

Here are a few ways parents and caregivers can help them do that.

‘Conscious Communication Online Is Not Often Taught At School Or At Home.’ By Gahmya Drummond-Bey, Global Curriculum Designer | Screen Time

Self-awareness is important. Always talk with them about who they want to be when they show up online. This includes letting them be involved when choosing usernames for shared apps. Let them choose names that represent what matters to them or the kind of person they want to be. This will help them take their digital identities and screen time seriously, versus believing that usernames are characters that they can hide behind. 

Ask: “How were you your favorite self online today?” Be a deep listener and be nonjudgmental. This will also provide you with an opportunity to form a closer connection with your young person. Note that you are asking them about being their favorite self rather than their best self. Being their favorite self empowers them to be a version of themselves that’s based on their creation, not what they’ve been praised for by others.

Accountability is key. Hold them accountable to being kind online in the same way that you hold them accountable at school. For example, “Did you talk to anyone online today? Did you make any comments today? What did you say? Why? What type of content did you watch today? How does that help you? Why are you interested in that? Is there anyone online that you compare yourself to?”

If they are too young to answer such questions, simply answer them yourself. “We’re going to watch Blippi because he’s educational and I like how he has lots of kind energy.” Or “Today, I compared myself to someone who has more followers than I do, but then I reminded myself that the number of followers I have isn’t important.”

Ask: “How did you communicate with others online today?” It may take a while for your young person to understand how to answer this question, because conscious communication online is not often taught at school or at home. Try to model conscious communication by offering your own example. You can even highlight a way that you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone to compliment someone, make friends or model kindness online.

‘Hold Them Accountable To Being Kind Online In The Same Way You Hold Them Accountable At School.’ By Gahmya Drummond-Bey, Global Curriculum Designer | Screen Time

Boundaries are necessary. Not everyone is who they say they are online, and profile photos can be deceiving. It’s important to empower children with information on how to engage or disengage during screen time, versus simply telling them not to talk to strangers.

For example, if they’re approached by a stranger online or someone asks a question that makes them feel uneasy, they can always reply: “Would you like to talk to my dad?” regardless of whether their dad is around or not. This can also be helpful if your child plays video games with a headset that allows them to converse with strangers. This sentence can also serve as a signal for a family member, or another trusted adult in the room, to hop in for support.

Ask: “Who asked you a personal question today? Did anyone ask you to keep a secret?” Use this time to talk about how to respond if someone said something that made them feel uncomfortable.

Critical thinking is valuable. The internet is filled with false information, and it is imperative for children to learn that they can’t believe everything they read or see. Ask them what they learned online today, just like you would ask them what they’ve learned at school.

Ask: “What did you learn today?” Sharing stories of your own experience could also be helpful.

Navigation is a superpower. When a child is interested in dancing, we typically take them to dance lessons. Teaching a young person ways to use the online space to further develop their interests will help them to learn to use tech as a superpower.

Unfortunately, many children simply use screen time to play games or watch YouTube videos, because that’s how they’ve been taught to use the tool. Helping them regularly use technology to connect to others and to build a digital world that represents who they want to be will help them to confidently navigate any space, whether it be online or the local playground.

Ask: “What would you like to create today?”

Identity evolves with each generation, and although such rapid advances in technology can compel some to become fearful and protect children as much as possible, remember that sharing your own experience and guidance are forms of protection as well. Helping your child learn how to navigate the online space with confidence is like teaching them to swim. Shielding them from screen time, however, is like not letting them visit the pool.

Whenever you feel yourself questioning their screen time, ask yourself, “Are they scrolling passively online, or are they actively connecting in a meaningful way?”

Learn more about what they’re using online to develop their sense of identity with Smart Family.

About the author:

Gahmya Drummond-Bey is a global curriculum designer, TED speaker, author, and award-winning parenting and tech writer. As the founder of Evolved Teacher, Inc., Gahmya has redesigned learning platforms in over 30 countries and on five continents and taught through three pandemics, making her a leading expert in the field of education.


The author has been compensated by Verizon for this article.

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