Screens have radically altered the way today’s kids play—and given parents a whole new set of things to worry about. Whether it’s a toddler’s facility with a touch screen or teenage friends playing FIFA 13 for hours without making eye contact, nothing ratchets up a parent’s anxiety more than watching their child stare at a flickering vortex, as blank and spooky as the girl in Poltergeist.
Those parents who have managed to impose limits on screen time can’t talk about it to other parents for fear of sounding smug or even authoritarian. The rest of us are left to wring our hands. Does Call of Duty incite violence? Is Facebook a breeding ground for bullies? Does texting distract kids from school and family, and erode their grammar too? Will a passion for Halo diminish a child’s ability to feel empathy—and if so, is TV more damaging to her emotional development?
It’s important for kids to have plenty of idle time in which to roughhouse, wander, goof off, daydream, doodle, make stuff, and indulge in other low-tech pastimes. Parents whose kids rarely do any of these things, because they’re glued to screens instead, are right to be anxious. And yet … unless your child has the kind of personality where he cannot ever release his grip on a video game controller or stop responding to texts, there’s no reason to become a Luddite. Your kid’s free time is supposed to be fun! And screens, as we all know very well, are, indeed, fun.
This is not to suggest that screen time should be doled out as a reward, in order to bribe or pacify whiny kids. The implied message of doing so is that screen time is inherently bad for you. But that simply isn’t true. Spending too much time staring at a screen isn’t a terrific idea, of course; but spending too much time doing anything is a problem. Limiting screen time—for all family members—is smart. But it’s pretty likely your kids are going to spend time in front of screens. Here are some fun, all-inclusive screen-based activities that everyone in the family can enjoy without guilt.
Citizen science: Increasingly, scientists in some fields are relying on volunteers to help out with research-related tasks that involve observation and/or measurement. Some of these projects will actually get you and your family out of the house and into nature—identifying frogs and toads by their song, say, or collecting data about local weather—before asking you to go online and record your findings.
Other citizen science tasks are strictly screen-based. One of the best-known of these is Galaxy Zoo, which asks participants to look at photos taken by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (a major multifilter imaging and spectroscopic survey) and the Hubble Space Telescope in order to classify galaxies. You’re asked to study an image of a galaxy while answering questions about the image: Is the galaxy spiral or elliptical? What else do you see in the image—a star, perhaps? A satellite trail? And it isn’t busywork—the first stage of the project collected millions of classifications. The current stage asks citizen scientists for more detailed classifications of a quarter-million of the brightest galaxies in the project’s sample.
Fooling around with sound: When we were kids, dual-cassette boomboxes were state-of-the-art recording technology. Kids today have it good! If you have a Mac, then you already have Apple’s GarageBand. PC users can download a free audio editor like Audacity; or an inexpensive program like Sony’s ACID Music Studio (a simplified version of ACID Pro). Today, our children record themselves making music, but even before they’d learned to play their instruments, they experimented with audio editors. With a little assistance from their parents, they created soundtracks for their homemade movies and bleeped curse words out of favorite songs. You can also use audio editing programs to make ringtones, create music loops (which makes practicing an instrument more fun), and even karaoke-ize your music by eliminating vocals.
By the way, although we’ve never prevented our children from sampling a few seconds of a pop song to play over the blooper reel on one of their stop-motion videos, we do remind them that it’s illegal and unethical to copy and share someone else’s music. Note, however, that the loops that come preloaded in GarageBand and other programs are royalty- and guilt-free.