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Active vs Passive Screen Time for Children

Morning Glorie established as a preschool and daycare in South City 1, Gurgaon almost 10 years back. Like any other institute, we had a core set of philosophies we started out with. One of the most important ones was - Gizmo Free! We have the below given poster on our premises, actively talk about it during admissions counselling, because parents do ask us whether we have smart screens, or whether we show videos or movies to kids in both preschool and daycare.

I stand by us being gizmo free for kids when they are coming to us on the physical premises. These children are stepping away from home, and we are being entrusted with their social and emotional development as much as learning, if not more so. We do not need to delegate that task to screens to make our lives easier. An almost 10-year experience also tells us that children do not need screens in preschool or daycare to be engaged in any manner. The toddler age group and older children alike are able to bond over a set of games and activities, the older children end up teaching games they have learned elsewhere to their friends too. There are times when this may make things difficult for us, for instance while we are feeding the little ones, but that is ok. In the absence of screens, they learn.

However, from being staunch proponents of no screens for children, we ourselves adapted to online learning and homeschooling modules in 2020  through our online preschool in India. Admittedly, the circumstances were too drastically different - we were in a mode of lockdown after all. However, the time period also gave us the chance to actively understand the difference between what is active screen time and what is passive screen time, and how one of them could actually be beneficial for children, when used and executed right.

I broadly divide the use of screen time in the following 5 categories to help understand the difference between active and passive screen time -

  • Engagement
  • Age-specific and Appropriate Stimuli
  • Learning
  • Providing Parent Support

  • Social and Emotional Development

What is Passive Screen Time?

Passive screen time refers to screen time where the child consumes digital media without being interaction or creative thinking involved. This involves a unidirectional flow of the content with no feedback mechanism. Examples include browsing through photographs, scrolling through social media browsing through videos.

How passive screen time fares on the above-mentioned criteria -

1. Engagement - Passive screen time can engage children to the extent that they are absorbed in the content, often while being oblivious to the surroundings.

2. Age-specific and Appropriate Stimuli - This often depends upon the level of control which parents exercise, both while giving a child access to device, and in imposing content controls on the device. Parents play a crucial role while setting these boundaries, without the child necessarily knowing that there is content they are being deprived from. When these controls are enforced, the child may be getting access to screen time which is age specific, and possibly appropriate. However, unchecked, a child may also have access to content which is not meant for them. For instance, mindless video browsing on the internet may take them to platforms with adult content. Or, what happens when a 3 year old dancing to and reciting the lyrics to a latest Hindi song - are there cuss words which your child may use? Can you explain their meaning if they ask? Are the steps appropriate for a 3 year old to dance on? 

Basically, it is often difficult to filter this content for children - vigilance is key.

3. Learning - This will again depend on the kind of content your child has access to. While there are many learning videos, and children can pick up a lot from them, unless an adult is engaged with the child to glean the relevant structure, learning may or may not happen correctly or incorrectly.

4. Providing Parent Support - In case of passive screen time, my assessment is that it provides a parent more relief than support. It is often an easy decision to give a device to the child to browse passive content while they are being fed, or when parents need some downtime or simply time to work. Passive screen time engages children without the need for parent intervention. But, parenting is hard work. If the content is wrong, then it can do more damage to a child.

5. Social and Emotional Development - Passive screen time can actively hinder social and emotional development. Since there is no feedback mechanism or the need for creative thinking, children tend to get absorbed in this content without using their mental faculty at times. Passive screen time is also addictive, which may cause difficulty in forming relevant habits and socializing with peers.

What is Active Screen Time?

Unlike passive screen time, active screen time is designed to challenge a child's cognitive abilities and force them to interact with the screen. This includes both live interactions with people across the screen (including video calls and online classes) as well as educational apps and games where a child is required to input a response.

How active screen time fares on the above-mentioned criteria -

1. Engagement - Active screen time leads to active engagement of children, because there is a two-way mechanism involved. A child learns to respond to a family member or an educator on the other side of the screen or whether they are inputting response to a question or educational game.

2. Age-specific and appropriate stimuli - Active screen-time is designed to ensure that children only have access to age specific and appropriate stimuli. Educational apps, games and online live classes all have an age-specific structure which they follow, with activities designed to bring out relevant response from children.

3. Learning - for the same reason as above, active screen time serves as a learning platform for the children.

4. Providing Parent Support - Active screen time helps parents with a structure through which they can engage their children, across age groups. This provides support to parents who are looking for homeschooling structures, or even activity based structures from home. Online schools and preschools, apps like Byju's or Udemy and so many more, all work on this premise, catering to the needs of different age groups.

5. Social and Emotional Development - Active screen time helps in social and emotional development of a child, when it is live and interactive in nature. Children are exposed to a peer group and facilitator other than the people at home, which broadens their horizons and teaches them to engage with people other than those in their comfort zone. With active screen time, children learn to "react", which is essential for social and emotional development.

For children under 6 years of age, passive screen time is generally not advised. This is the age where there is exponential brain development, and the wrong stimulus can do a lot of damage. Children engaged in passive screen time often show delays in language development and social and emotional development. 

Active screen time can greatly help enhance development in children, but that does not mean it should be unlimited. There can be pockets of active screen time exposure to children under 6 years of age, but it should not be continuous. The adult (parent or otherwise) must be engaged with the child when they are smaller, to get the best out of active screen time while ensuring that the stimulus is not lost in translation. 

At Morning Glorie, we have incorporated active screen time for a limited part of the day through our online preschool in India - the live homeschooling program (for more on the pros and cons of online and other modes of distance learning, you can visit our earlier post Online Preschool in India - Pros and Cons ).The focus is on ensuring that there is no exposure to passive screen time. For our preschool and daycare in South City 1, Gurgaon, we still believe that the relevant stimuli and social environment is available without the need for screen time. Both the modules have their own place and need. Active screen time is as much a means for parents to be active participants in their child's learning as it is to replace passive screen time, which is detrimental for children. Physical preschools and schools on the other hand are a different world for children, away from their comfort zone. Both these modes of learning can complement each other when used right. 

Up Next - Development of Writing Skills in Toddlers - The Parent's Guide


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