A young boy sits at a computer screen waiting to join a Zoom call. The room around him is dark and the light of the screen glows upon his face.
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For Kids, How Much Screen Time Is Too Much? Why That’s the Wrong Question to Ask 

Parents worried about screen time — the cumulative chunk of the day that kids spend watching television, using a smartphone or playing video games — is nothing new. For decades, child psychologists, parents and members of the media have engaged in respective research, hand-wringing and breathless headline-writing decrying technology’s deleterious effects on child development.  

In a new book, Early Childhood and Digital Media, developmental psychologist Rachel Barr wants everyone involved to move past this outdated paradigm. Barr, in collaboration with colleagues Heather Kirkorian, Sarah Coyne and Jenny Radesky, is offering the research community a new framework for understanding and measuring the impact of technology on early childhood development.    

“Researchers have focused almost exclusively on screen time and simplistic recommendations about its use which does not capture the complexity of our current digital landscape,” said Barr. “Put simply, not all media are not created equal. There are multiple different motivations for use and capturing this complexity would provide families with more precise guidance about the pros and cons of media use.”

Moving Past the Chunk of Time

More so than at any point in the past, technology is embedded into human life and, subsequently, the lives of young children under five years of age. The advent of smartphones and wireless connectivity supercharged a trend that began with radio and television. 

A woman with long, blonde hair smiles outside. In the background are out-of-focus cherry blossoms.

Prof. Rachel Barr on Copley Lawn.

“Two decades ago, a television might be on in the background of a family home, but it stayed there,” explained Barr. “Today, however, smart devices travel everywhere with families — they’re at the front and center.” 

The ‘chunk of time’ model, which measures media use  totaling how much time in front of a screen someone spends in a day and presenting it as the end-all data point is reflective of this earlier technology paradigm. It’s a mode of thinking that has outstayed its utility because the chunk of time doesn’t tell researchers, or parents, about the myriad of factors that determine whether or not digital media use is helping, or hindering, childhood development.  

To move past the chunk of time, Barr and her colleagues have introduced the Dynamic, Relational, Ecological Approach to Media Effects Research, or the DREAMER framework. Through this framework, the team hopes to better capture the nuances associated with the vastly varied types of media available to children. 

“We want to think about how media is being used in the house and set up a research agenda that would allow us to move beyond ‘is too much media good or bad’ to understand how families are using media and what types of media lead to good and bad outcomes,” said Barr.

There are a slew of variables on which the team is focused, including whether or not digital media is accessed in a silo or collaboratively. Joint media engagement, when parents and children don’t just view, but actively engage with media together, can boost social bonds and educational outcomes.  

“A parent and a child may watch an educational program on the television together,” said Barr. “After the program ends, it may spur discussion about the content and a trip outside to play the same game that was in the show or extend upon its content.”

This type of active, engaged media use is vastly different from technology interference, or technoference, which can create barriers in social relationships. Think about picking up a phone in the middle of a conversation to check an email. A parent may cut off their child, introducing a physical and intellectual barrier, and in the process showcase isolating, antisocial technology use. 

The Long Shadow of the Pandemic

For Barr, virtual, at-home schooling caused by the pandemic represented an inflection point, showcasing the vast differences in access to technology and how those differences affect childhood educational and social outcomes. 

“Some kids went home and used Zoom for school in their own room, on their own device and with stable internet,” said Barr. “Other kids went to a McDonald’s to use a shared device on public wifi so that they could try and keep up.”

The tale of two students illustrates the diversity of experience that Barr and her colleagues hope to capture in the DREAMER framework. In Early Childhood and Digital Media, Barr and her colleagues offer the Comprehensive Assessment of Family Media Exposure (CAFE) toolkit to measure the dynamic range of media use captured by the DREAMER model. So far, the toolkit has been used to conduct research in a dozen countries around the world.  

During the pandemic, technology use also led to a range of benefits and drawbacks. In some cases, families and friends were able to connect, engendering positive feelings of community and solidarity. In other cases, many individuals reported becoming sucked into the digital world, which led to increased feelings of isolation and even behavioral and social problems. 

Already, Barr has cataloged some of the impacts of the pandemic’s virtual world on children and families. The Georgetown Early Learning Project, an on-campus lab founded and led by Barr, documented video chats between grandchildren and grandparents having tremendous positive effects on both parties. 

“It is hard for parents to navigate the digital world to harness the power of technology and reduce possible harms,” said Barr. “The DREAMER framework aims to provide a road map for researchers and policymakers to create safe digital spaces for children growing up in the digital world.”

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