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The Screen Time Dilemma: Picture Books as Tools to Guide Reflection on Social Habits and Cultural Practices

By Kathleen A. Paciga and Melanie D. Koss
 | Apr 13, 2021
Girl on mobile phone

Children’s books are commonly used in home, school, and community contexts to promote awareness of complex social issues at the earliest stages of development. Children and their caregivers encounter cultural models for, and may appropriate sociocultural values and norms about, the screen time dilemma through their experiences with texts that contain narratives about screens. The dilemma centers on the question of how much screen time—oftentimes measured in the number of minutes—is too much? Also considered is the types of interactions children have with devices.

More and more frequently, picture books contain representations of screens, media, and technologies. How might these texts be leveraged to help children understand their relationships with screens in a more nuanced way?

Lots of talk about screen time

Headlines in major news media outlets have long put forward claims about the dangers of increases in screen time for children who are spending more minutes looking at screen media than ever before. This has intensified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some of the science has suggested corollary damages to eyes and increased weight in children with excessive and sedentary use of screens, there are several additional factors associated with screen time, some more positive, that tend to be overlooked in the discussion.

Moving past the number of minutes a child spends with a screen as the criteria for evaluating the worth of a child’s experience with screens is critical. A consideration of the “3 Cs”—the Child, the Context, and the Content—provides a more balanced lens for evaluation. Consider the whole child—their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development—and their needs as related to the current context in which screens are used. Also consider the quality of the content and whether it is used for entertainment, creativity, or social interaction, or to help the child learn about a topic that is of interest to them.

Media mentorship

Shortly after mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets came to market, librarians and education researchers started suggesting that caregivers and children need media mentors. Media mentors help families make wise technology choices for and with their children, and they help families use new cultural tools.

Teachers can step into this role by leveraging read-alouds to launch discussions around how students and caregivers embrace, restrict, or balance the screens, digital media, and technologies in their lives.

Titles and talking points

The stories that follow offer abundant opportunity to explore these issues with pre-K–3 children and their families. Across all titles, teachers have opportunities to talk about what is added to and omitted from the child’s life while screens are turned on, turned off, or put to the side.

The Breaking News (Sarah Lynne Ruel, Roaring Brook)

Presenting a view of parents tracking a significant news event on the television and their phones, a little girl is confused and overwhelmed. She tries to find a way to make a difference in cheering up her family and community. This story opens the door for conversations about current events and the role of screens in presenting the news. Kids can advocate in their homes for adults to “turn it off,” and adults can help explain the importance of news in everyday life, exploring the emotions that a breaking news story might present.

Our Great Big Backyard (Laura Bush & Jenna Bush Hager, HarperCollins)

Jane’s parents are making her go on a family cross-country road trip, but Jane really wants to stay home with her friends. She spends her time texting her friends or watching videos on a device, ignoring her parents’ encouragement to enjoy the great outdoors. Jane eventually arrives at the conclusion that what is going on around her in reality is worth attending to. This story allows for conversation about children’s desire to connect with peers, the role of media in a child’s life, and the ways caregivers might find balance between experiences indoors and outdoors, with screens and without screens, as well as between peers and family.

Hair Love (Matthew A. Cherry, Kokila)

It’s a special day, and Zuri needs to create the perfect hairstyle, but her dad is sleeping. While researching possibilities, her tablet falls, waking her dad. He attempts several styles, but none are quite right. Zuri encourages him to watch a video tutorial to learn how it’s done. This book beautifully celebrates the positives and potentials of screens as a tool for learning and inquiry. It provides opportunities to discuss a child’s goals for using a screen and fosters understandings of how screens can be used alone or in conjunction with others—as is captured in the joint use between Zuri and her father as well as in the celebratory selfie Zuri snaps at the end of the story.

When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree (Jamie L.B. Deenihan, Sterling)

What do you do when you really want a technological toy for your birthday but instead you get a lemon tree? The main character had to learn to make the best of it, ultimately growing to appreciate the joy that taking care of something can bring. Sharing the tree and lemons with her family and neighborhood inspired the main character to explore gardening and her friends to put down their technology and explore nature. A house portrayed without any technology and feeling like the only one without allows for discussion on consumerism and wanting, yet not always receiving, what peers have, as well as ways to interact with others around items without screens.

For more on where ILA stands on using technology as a tool to teach children, read our position statement and literacy leadership brief Digital Resources in Early Childhood Literacy Development.

 

ILA member Katie A. Paciga is an associate professor at Columbia College, Chicago in Illinois.

ILA member Melanie D. Koss is an associate professor at Northern Illinois University.

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