Screens Aren't Evil

Matt Honan's recent post on Wired about parenting in the age of ubiquitous screens has gotten people like Shawn Blanc and Stephen Hackett talking.


But the ever-present touchscreens make me incredibly uneasy—probably because they make parenting so easy. There is always one at hand to make restaurants and long drives and air travel much more pleasant. The tablet is the new pacifier.

For a much more in depth look at this subject, check out Hanna Rosin's piece for The Atlantic, “The Touch Screen Generation,” which I expected to be another hand-wringing expose on the decline of western civilization by way of modern technology. But it's quite the opposite. One of the myths she busts is the idea that screens are inherently less stimulating than something like reading.

An early strain of research claimed that when we watch television, our brains mostly exhibit slow alpha waves—indicating a low level of arousal, similar to when we are daydreaming. These findings have been largely discarded by the scientific community, but the myth persists that watching television is the mental equivalent of, as one Web site put it, “staring at a blank wall.” These common metaphors are misleading, argues Heather Kirkorian, who studies media and attention at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A more accurate point of comparison for a TV viewer’s physiological state would be that of someone deep in a book, says Kirkorian, because during both activities we are still, undistracted, and mentally active.

I distinctly remember hearing about that alpha wave research, and I took it for gospel ever since that screens make us more passive than books. But it's false! Most of the articles on children and screen-time assume the medium is the problem, but the medium is neutral. In fact, research has shown that interactive content can be more educational than passive content. And yet we still feel more comfortable with our kids reading books for hours than we do with them playing video games for hours.

What we need to focus on is the content. I live in Minnesota, and this past winter was miserable, so I let my kids have more screen-time than usual. One of the things I noticed was the dramatically different effects of different video games. When they played Flappy Bird, they fell into a hypnotic trance. When they played Wii Sports, they were jumping all over the room, actually winding themselves and breaking a sweat. And when they played Minecraft, they came mentally alive, building incredibly complex virtual structures, collaborating with each other, giving each other tips, and talking all the time.

Of course, kids shouldn't spend all day with screens. Devoting yourself to only one activity is always a problem. If your kid played basketball every waking moment and never learned to read, that would be a problem. If they did nothing but read Shakespeare and never moved a muscle, that would also be cause for concern. Moderation is the obvious solution.

But we need to get beyond worrying about whether “screens” are melting our kids' brains. What we need to be conscious of is encouraging our kids, and ourselves, to engage in activities that enrich us. Sometimes that's interacting with each other, sometimes that's a hike in the forest, sometimes thats a great book, and sometimes that's an incredible video game. It's not the medium that matters, but what we take from it.


Stephen Hackett wrote a follow up post that addresses some of the things I'm talking about.