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On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

School's out, and a lot of parents are getting through the long summer days with extra helpings of digital devices.

How should we feel about that?

Well, if you're a faithful reader of NPR Ed we don't blame you for being a little conflicted. On the one hand, electronic toys for babies fall short in educational benefits, some screen-addled tweens may be worse at reading emotions and cyberbullying, privacy, even suicide are concerns.

On the other hand, shows like Daniel Tiger promote pro-social messages, artificial intelligence promises "magical robo-tutors in the sky," more students will soon be expected to learn computer science, and you can start them on it as young as age 4.

Sonia Livingstone, who has been researching families and technology for nearly three decades, says that families are getting whipsawed by this "polarized" advice.

And the media, as well as other authorities, are to blame for concentrating on the negative effects of screens on kids without differentiating between potential risks and actual harms, or correlations and cause, and for not talking enough about what constructive role parents can play other than yanking the plug.

"Parents are panicked by the messages about the dangers of the Internet," Livingstone says. "Messages are coming from very scattered sources and reaching parents in garbled forms. If they look for official advice, they tend to find 10 ways to say, 'Don't,' but no ways to say 'Do.' "

Livingstone is currently a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she directs a research project called Parenting for a Digital Future. They've recently published a research brief on families and screen time, as well as an ethnographic study of kids learning online titled "The Class." We sat down to talk about what better advice for parents might sound like, and where it might come from.

You blame the media for dwelling on the dangers of too much screen time and of Internet use. But those risks are very real, aren't they?

Yes, child porn, grooming [for abuse], stranger danger, suicide — the major crimes of the Internet could reach your child. We don't want to undermine that message. But we have to move the parent advice on from there. Just like it's true that you have to stop your child getting knocked down on the road, but most of the time when you leave the house you talk about where you're going, to the cinema or the library, and why. You don't have to always say, "And, by the way, don't get knocked down." We want a sense of a much greater diversity of messages reaching parents.

So what are some examples of more diverse messages? You cite the evidence in favor of "parental mediation" — what does that mean, exactly?

Most of the time parents have bought this technology and put it in their homes because they hope it can bring benefits. One goal we talk about a lot is to support learning and creating. So you can look at what your child enjoys online and have a conversation about how you can develop and support that. Children learn and explore and develop skills based on their own motivations and interest. So instead of saying, "You've been playing that game too long," say, "What is so interesting? Show me." And hopefully there can be some shared interests.

Speaking of sharing, you argue shared screens can be springboards to deeper conversations and even more emotional closeness, right?

I did my Ph.D. on soap operas. And what lots of parents told me [back then] was that they watch it together because even though it's trashy, someone's bound to have an abortion, an affair, or run away. And parents and teens can begin a gentle conversation about that: What did you think?

It was kind of the conversation trigger for the difficult topics.

I'm struck that in the age of individual screens, parents are now using TV as a way of trying to bring the family together: "Let's sit down and watch a show!" You can do that for the Internet too. Kids do it all the time on phones. They gather round and show each other and talk about things. We could have more of that.

But another kind of parental involvement that's often portrayed as the responsible thing to do, installing trackers and monitors and knowing their passwords on social media, doesn't work as well. Why is that?

I think that's one of the big American — British differences. I hear a lot more from American parents: It's my phone, my kid, I pay for it and I have a right to know. The British have been historically more likely to say: They have a right to privacy. But research shows that if you monitor and surveil your kids, and they don't like it, they'll have Facebook for you and Tumblr for their friends and they won't tell you about the Tumblr. And if you set up the computer so it monitors everything then they'll go round to a friend's house.

On the other hand, if parents could find something they enjoy doing together, like playing a game with their kids, then if there's porno popups or contacts from strangers coming up on their [kids'] phones they'll see it. And that that will be reassuring: They'll see the environment without having to seem like they're the police.

So is your message about kids on the Internet "trust, but verify"?

My current test for parents is not "Have you said all the right things?" but "Does your child come to you and talk to you about what they're doing or their worries on the Internet?" You need to create the circumstance where they want to do that.

Let's shift to an arena where the conversation is much less about risks and harms and much more about promised benefits: screens in education. Your recently published book The Class followed a group of 13-year-olds in England to see how they were learning with technology both in and out of school. What did you find?

There are two kinds of things to be said about tech in schools. One is, is it effective? And the other is, how does learning in school relate to learning at home?

So "The Class" was kind of about both, but more about the relation between what children did at home and whether it got recognized at the school. Our argument is that middle class kids and parents are better at making the connection between home and school. Where with the poorer, more disadvantaged kids there's a disconnect.

And what are your thoughts about tech in schools in general?

Both in the States and Britain, there's a lot of experimentation going on. There's a lot of schools where everyone's got a tablet and it's brilliant and others where they're piled up in a closet, or teachers say, "We get better results with books." You have to lock them down. Don't let the kids bring them home. The schools are under quite a lot of pressure to be risk-averse. Parents get upset when anything goes wrong. So I don't hear the same excitement that there was 10 years ago.

And it's only around the really geeky enthusiastic teachers that things are happening.

I do see some weariness developing among educators, maybe in response to overhyped marketing. And yet what do you make of the argument that our classrooms need to resemble the workplaces of today, and really the rest of the world?

So what is tech good for? It's good for multimedia presentations, collaborative projects, just-in-time and small-group and interest-led learning. It's good for things that schools are struggling with for other reasons. And assessment is a real problem. So it's OK when you're 5 or 7, but when you get to be 14 or 17 assessment is very, very traditional.

It's also not quite established for schools what the benefits are yet. We're asking them to change teacher training, curriculum, management, investment, funding. And there are some evaluations that show a result of better learning and more equality, but plenty of studies that don't.

That's not the the most appealing message: Change everything and we think it might work. We wouldn't roll out new drugs on that basis.

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