A New Window on Kids and Screen Time

David KleemanBy David Kleeman, SVP of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist for PlayCollective

When I was a child, my grandmother had an amazing apartment above the East River in New York. I could sit for hours watching the boats and no one ever expressed concern that I was getting too much “window time.”

Today, as a “PlayVangelist” and specialist in children and media, I expend a lot of effort debunking the term “screen time.” It’s a favorite among those who wring their hands over today’s highly mediated world; however, it’s become arcane and misleading – 21st Century media is as much “window” as it is screen.

With proliferating platforms and devices and such diverse content and uses, mere duration of screen time is less important than what content is being consumed (or created) – as well as the context of when, where and why it is being utilized.

Calling something a screen conjures up a flat image and a passive mechanism for delivering content. Ever since the advent of film, screens have been used to draw attention inward and keep it there. And that’s a useful tool, in its place: who hasn’t been transfixed by a great movie, immersed in a TV show or lost track of time while playing a game?

Mobile media’s unique properties – including connectivity, communication, cameras and creativity tools – only extend and deepen the screen-as-window concept.

But we’ve also grown to use screens as windows – not the destination, but a pass-through to something beyond. In theaters, newsreels took Americans into the heart of World War II; today, nature and travel TV transport us to places we might never otherwise see. Google and YouTube may be the largest picture windows ever created.

Mobile media’s unique properties – including connectivity, communication, cameras and creativity tools – only extend and deepen the screen-as-window concept. Innovative developers, particularly in the gaming world, pull users through and beyond the screen, facilitating learning, play and discovery in the wider world.

Skype, Facetime and other video chat apps connect families and friends across long distances. Some enterprising developers have added narrative elements to enhance children’s experience, such as the ability to share a book on both screens, or build an animated story together.

Adventure and role-playing games invite players to explore, build and socialize within fantasy worlds. Kids worldwide (and plenty of grown-ups, too) are deeply into “sandbox” construction tools like Minecraft, where the screen is but the portal to infinite, buildable space (Lego’s marketing director David Gram recently told Wired, “Minecraft is digital Logo” and added “we only wish we had invented it.”)

In games like that, gamer and crafter may appear absorbed in the screen, but really they’re gazing through it, at landscapes over which they hold some narrative or creative control.

Digital windows can supplement, enhance or facilitate real-world experiences, and they may be all that’s possible for some people.

eBooks, too, open a window to real and imaginary places, accessed through the screen. Where the app and the eBook meet, kids can even put themselves into the story, whether using the internal camera or unique authoring and illustrating tools. The slippery slope gets steeper – are eBooks reading time or screen time?

Discovery and documentation tools, embedded in phones and tablets, are getting people off the couch and into a world that is increasingly tagged, mapped, augmented, and crowdsourced. The screen goes along for the ride, but primarily to facilitate navigation and explanation.

Of course, technology isn’t a substitute for authentic moments or explorations; people need to see, touch, smell and taste the world first-hand. But digital windows can supplement, enhance or facilitate real-world experiences, and they may be all that’s possible for some people.

There is a window of opportunity for our industries to flip the “screen time” debate, by talking about how our programs, games, apps and other creations are actually windows to something beyond the device.

Every window – architectural or electronic – is a gateway to adventure, inquiry, fantasy, storytelling, self-discovery and learning. In strategic planning, creative development and marketing, give thought to how your audience can be transported by a window, not transfixed by a screen.

Strategist, analyst, author and speaker, David Kleeman is Senior Vice President of Insights Programs and PlayVangelist for PlayCollective, a research and strategy company in New York built around children and families, play and learning. For 25 years, he ran the American Center for Children and Media.

The Cynsiders column is a platform for industry leaders to reach out to colleagues, followers, and the public at large.  In their own words, columnists address breaking news, issues of the day, and the larger changes going on in the ever-evolving world of television, video and digital. Cynsiders columns live on Cynopsis’ main page and are promoted across all daily newsletters. We welcome readers’ comments, queries, and column ideas at RDawn@cynopsis.com

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