A friend of mine who has two very creative, boredom-free and impressive young children told me that a significant contributing factor to their brilliance was that he disallowed them any screen-time in the early years of their lives. He follows the philosophy of neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis who stresses that the first few years of a child's development are heavily influential, and passively watching screens early on can permanently stunt their mental development - a philosophy I too mostly agree with. Young minds need true human interaction in order to develop, not passive viewing.
So then why am I OK with my young 3 month old boy having some screen-time?...
It depends on what kind of screen time.
When people talk about screen-time today they typically mean:
- Some kind of centralized social media app
- Passive video watching videos
- Forum diving (Reddit etc) and doom-scrolling
- Often inflammatory anonymous text chat with strangers
- Free to play video-game (Games used to be a good challenge but honestly today they are mostly weak and addictive. "Players" mainly just watch a blabbering streamer play it for them)
All of it algorithmically fed, monitoring your every move, and constantly mutating itself to remain ever-addictive by delivering the stream of dopamine with less and less effort.
When I was a kid I spent hours on a PC but I did none of the above things. I actually spent most of the time on my PC being creative (OK I admit I also played a LOT of video-games but they were challenging ones which actually taught me team work and other soft skills!). Back in those days, none of the above actually existed the way they do now. The Internet of the time was not designed to suck in minds endlessly. Neither was tech in general designed like this.
So when I say "I'm OK with Screen time for my child", I am talking about quality screen-time. Just like spending real life "quality-time" is important, I'm more than happy for my child to spend "quality-time" in front of a PC. Being creative and learning useful things, but doing it in the way that I did as a child. Avoiding the predatory algorithms, inflammatory social-media and the excessive addiction of the modern Internet,
How can I achieve this for my child? In the early days it's easy to control what they see on the TV. With my 3 month old its mainly documentaries and fairly wholesome viewing (certainly none of the overly stimulating brain-less "kids shows" like Paw Patrol and Cocomelon). But at some point they are going to exposed to the full scale Internet on their own device. What then? Only allow them to use a locked down device allowing a limited range of services? This can be done via a device-wide DNS blocker or parental controls. But I would not want to rely on this heavy-handed approach.
A better way is to teach children good technology habits... which always begins with practicing what you preach.
As I already cultivate good technology habits personally and love sharing ideas with others, it should be easier to instill the same behaviors in my child. Teaching them about:
- The downsides of modern distracting tech and showing them wholesome alternatives.
- Wise-tech - ways to co-exist with big-tech and take advantage of them without falling prey to them.
- RSS - Curating and controlling their own feeds, instead of addictive algorithms.
- Blocking tracking, ads, recommendations and dark-patterns.
- Taking breaks and awareness of time spent.
- Advantages of FOSS, encryption, local-first software and self-hosting.
Then it's up to them to make up their own mind and decide what they truly value, that way I wont be telling them what to do for the rest of my life.
Secondly I think having plenty of quality real-life interaction is important to prevent them being sucked into "The Matrix" of heavily believing the online world is more important than the rich and direct reality in right in front of them. Learning true presence and calmness in the natural moment. Having a balance of active real-life hobbies, like hiking or cycling.
Thirdly, a related factor is steering children away from group-think and being a sheep. It's so easy for all of us, but particularly younger ones, to want to be doing, watching and using whatever "everyone else" is. Independent thinking and free-mindedness are lifelong traits that will keep them away from toxic tech and many other unwise mainstream things.
Just like teaching them healthy eating, self-care, and exercise habits, teaching children healthy technology habits is just as important. Its not necessarily the screen-time that's the issue, its the screen-content. At the end of the day we don't want them consuming so much "information junk-food" and ending up with unhealthy minds.
Teach them to use the tool but not become the tool.