No Need for Screen Time Limits, Says Digital Education Expert

Limiting screen time is like limiting book time.

Richard Culatta is a dad of four, ages 8-16, but he’s less worried than most parents about their screen time.

That’s because he has spent most of his career learning about – and road testing — all the ways tech can enhance kids’ lives. Culatta started out as a high school Spanish teacher and now is CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education. In between he was head of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education under Obama.

His new book is, “Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World.” Let Grow spoke with him about the mismatch between parental fears and tech’s potential to make kids happier, smarter and better-connected to their families:

LG: It feels like any conversation about kids and tech usually goes straight to doom. What are YOU hearing?

RC: I’m not oblivious to the fact that there are major problems in our digital world – I could add even a couple. I’ll take your dysfunction and raise you one! But when all the focus is on the “don’ts” we lose the opportunity for kids to build the skills we DO want them to have. I tell parents, “You know this really well in some other areas of your life. For instance, my kids all play piano. They don’t learn by us telling them all the notes NOT to play.”

LG: So we sort of have to introduce our kids to the upside of tech?

RC: The digital world they’re stepping into is very complex, so the skills they need will take a lot of practice. All the time we spend on “don’ts” is a misaligned effort.

Tech can make kids closer to their families

LG: What “do”s should we be teaching them?

RC: Well, the least interesting thing we do in the virtual world is get content. The MOST interesting thing we do is to connect with interesting people. There are lots of ways young people can engage with experts and peers that they would never have access to in the real world — and that includes connecting with family members.

LG: Besides Zooming with the grandparents?

RC: In our family, one of the agreements we have is that the kids will use their devices to help capture family memories. So, we were just on a family trip to North Carolina. Our oldest two made a wonderful video – hilarious.

LG: You got them to focus on the family AND learn video storytelling? Cool.  

RC: These devices are the most powerful learning tools we have ever had. I worry that sometimes we adults don’t do a good enough job of modeling this for our kids. I’m talking about finding moments when kids have questions. Take those as a chance to teach learning. One of my kids found this weird bug and we were, “What kind of bug is it?” So we took a picture and uploaded it –

LG: I do that too!

RC: And all of a sudden we know that it’s a Brown Marmorated Stinkbug. We even know that it likes the way it smells – it enjoys its stink.

LG: There’s such a thing as TMI even in the bug world. Anyway, it sounds like you are nurturing curiosity via tech the way our parents might have by pulling out the encyclopedia. But what are your thoughts on videogames?

Our friend, the Stinkbug. (Photo credit: Invasive.org)

But what about videogames?

RC: Videogames…

LG: Insert rueful laugh.

RC: One of the most important skills for us is the ability to recognize that some things bring greater value than others. We don’t say all books are good or bad. We say, “How’s that book? Did you like it?” So when someone says, “All videogames are bad!” that’s not helpful. There are some games that are fantastic. Look at Minecraft – it’s collaborative, safe. Then there are other games that are just a waste of time — luck-based, repetitive. But even some of THOSE games might be appropriate if I’m [a kid] on a long car ride and I take an hour and play Candy Crush. But it’s different if I’m home and my friends are outside. So think about the context and the individual video activity.

LG: What about videogame addiction?

RC: There IS real addition. But in the vast majority of families I talk to there is NOT an addiction. When I ask parents what’s the problem, they say, “I don’t want him playing that game all the time.” “Okay, what DO you want?” And they say, “Oh gosh – I just don’t want them playing that game.” If you can’t come up with anything better to do, then why not?

And then they say, “We miss having family interactions.” So it’s not addiction – it’s that something has gotten out of balance. Time has gone to the video activity instead of the family. Reframe it that way: The balance is off.

Why don’t you believe in screen time limits?

LG: That sounds a lot less judgmental – and maybe even more effective. So is the answer to limit screen time? I’m guessing you have a better idea.

RC: One of my big concerns is about this is idea that it makes screen time a “treat.” The construct is: “You have an hour to do screen play and you can do whatever you want till it stops.” When we set it up that way, I’m not [as a child] learning when I’m “full.”

For instance, imagine if we had “food time.” So, “For the next hour you can eat ANYTHING you want – Twinkies, candy – and then time’s up.” In our family, we’ve taught our kids to recognize their own signals of when they’ve had enough. The same model works for tech.

Parents: Do not despair

LG: Tell us one last thing to make us less worried about our kids on their devices.

RC: Remember that some videogames are really creative and require team play. I interview people coming out of college and they’ll say, “I learned to be a team player by playing World of Warcraft.” Teams do well when the players realize, “You’re better at this part, I’m better at that.” Those skills – organizing, leadership — are immediately transferable. They’re valuable. They’re not “stupid videogames.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.