The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media & Real Life, by Anya Kamenetz is part study, part research and part parenting guide. It cuts to the heart of the digital crisis that parents find themselves in, which is we simply don’t have scientific studies that can quantify good and bad amounts of screen time. There are no controlled studies, because as she points out, if the initial analysis is that screen time could be harmful to children, you can’t ethically give a group of children something that you think could harm them more just to push the boundaries of that conclusion. So we get a lot of hearsay and a lot of hysteria, often influenced by personal opinion. Just this year I saw headlines saying that video games were harming kids, and then studies saying that video games were helping kids. There is so much conflicting information out there but this book logically and rationally explores, debates and provides evidence to think about.
The book does deal with American statistics and by and large is very concerned upon the Art of Screen Time in America rather than British, but having lived in both countries and my son being a dual British and American citizen, I personally still found the statistics interesting and relevant. The core information I took away from this book was universal and could be applied anywhere in the world.
I’m an avid Netflix watcher, social media hound, blogger (as you can tell!) and gamer. I’m a geek AND a nerd and I embraced technology from a young age. Yet as a parent with a baby, I can immediately see the difference in him when he glances at a YouTube video or stares at images if we watch the TV when he’s in the room. I just had a look at YouTube and there are videos specifically targeting babies – newborn babies – and suggesting that you use these videos to calm your children. Is that okay? I have no idea! We’ve been sharing screen time with his grandparents since he was tiny – they live in the USA, and have an hourly video chat every week. Is that okay, or is that bad too? These are questions I have to ask myself and there simply isn’t an easy answer. As he gets older and actively seeks out video games, YouTube and social media, I know that we need to decide our boundaries for him.
Anya Kamenetz – who also wrote The Test – uses her personal study as well as many different well-qualified experts to explore why digital media is so attractive to children both younger and older and then explains the risks and what we need to look out for. Whilst this is quite a technical book, peppered with jargon and statistics, it is very readable, relateable and understandable, especially as she shares personal details about her upbringing, and how she has raised and used screen time with her own daughter.
Everything is put into perspective and Kamenetz provides a well reasoned discussion that I think will appeal to most modern families – one of moderation. There are risks to most things when done in excess, and everyone has a different level of tolerance. We need to be thinking about this, to be aware of what’s happening, to monitor the situation and adjust as needed. We need to be aware not just of how much time our children spend staring at screens – but what is is they’re engaging in as well, especially in this era of clickbait. There are some interesting explorations of addiction, violence, autism and gender stereotypes. I can’t say I agree with the reasoning at all times in the book, but it’s certainly a well thought out discussion with corroborating evidence for the hypotheses put forward.
Don’t worry – there’s a bright side too. The Art of Screen Time goes into the idea of positive parenting through media – which is a more relaxed read and easier to digest. The idea that yes, there are some negatives and we need to be careful, but also there are positive things that can be taken from digital media, video games and engaging with friends and family through screen time. As someone who enjoys playing video games, I loved the emphasis on the positive things that video games can help with, such as increased learning, reading speed, attention control, focus, ADHD and more. With half our family being thousands of miles away, I was relieved to read about the benefits of engaging with others digitally. I was a little worried at the start that it would all be negative, so as an advocate of integrating technology into the modern family, I really enjoyed seeing a reasoned response with no scaremongering – a balanced view of the entire situation.
We’re given a practical guide as parents for how to integrate these positive influences into our parenting. These are simple things that I can already put into place with my 9 month old son, even though his screen time right now is currently limited to in the car when absolutely necessary, and to interact with his overseas grandparents and aunt. I feel like I have a more structured idea of how to move forward over the next few years and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading this book again as he develops.
I came away from The Art of Screen Time on the whole, feeling positive. Although it was a bit of a gloomy start, I feel I have a better awareness now of what I can do to include technology and screen time in our family in a positive, interactive way, and a good idea of what risk-signs to watch out for. It made me have a think about the way I personally use technology and how I can be more positive and more present as well and not by criticizing me or making me feel guilty, but just encouraging me to think about it logically and evaluate. Lord knows we have enough mum guilt going around already – this book definitely doesn’t pile any more on, there’s no preaching to be found here. It really feels like it’s presenting the information so you can make your own decisions and feel more reassured.
Finally, I absolutely love the ending – a TL:DR (that’s Too Long, Didn’t Read if you’re not up on your acronyms!). A bit of an odd thing to find in a book you might be thinking, but it’s actually pretty useful to share with family members and friends. I’m not going to get my husband or mum to read this book, but a 5 minute synopsis I can read out to them and discuss with them is an absolutely fabulous idea and an easy reference tool for the future.