Now that children are out of school for the summer, parents and carers will inevitably turn to a screen (of some sort) to keep children occupied. How can this be a productive, learning and enriching time for children even when in front of a screen? Alicia Blum-Ross encourages parents and carers to let children experiment, play, and relax this summer, offering tips about TV engagement. Alicia is a researcher at the LSE’s Department of Media and Communications. In addition to her work on the Parenting for a Digital Future research project, she is interested in youth media production. [Header image credit: T. Alter, CC BY 2.0]

With the summer holidays upon us, many children will be watching … *cough*… a bit more TV than usual. But if you imagined children watching a ‘set top’ box, you’d be out of date. Where, when and how children watch TV is changing – 2016 was the first year that Ofcom’s annual research showed that (older) children now spend more time online than watching ‘traditional’ TV.

Ensuring diverse content

Yet if you look past the device and think of whether children still enjoy watching ‘shows’ and ‘channels’ – given these can be accessed on on-demand platforms like BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube and Amazon or child-specific services like YouTube Kids, Azoomee or Hopster via tablets, smartphones, computers etc. – children’s content is as popular as ever.

Producing high quality, diverse children’s content is still, even with President Trump’s threats to PBS in the US, considered by many to be an important public good. Head of BBC Children’s Alice Webb recently wrote that this is a ‘golden age’ for children’s TV, and the BBC recently announced an additional £34 million over three years to ‘reinvent’ their children’s services for a digital age.

Keeping up with this massive array of choice is a challenge for parents. Common Sense Media has just launched a guide to YouTube channels and videos, crowd-sourcing to ask parents to nominate the YouTubers their children watch, acknowledging that you can no longer just rate TV shows on established channels. While many parents in our study continued to turn to known ‘brands’ like the BBC as a stamp of quality, if children are watching these shows on platforms like YouTube that suggest related content, the next choice might not be so vetted.

While some parents fret about increased ‘screen time’ over the summer holidays – fearing that this leads to reduced physical activity – others advocate precisely for ‘mindless’ TV as a way for over-scheduled testing-pressured children to ‘switch off’ (not literally), slow down and actually get bored. It is also important to recognise when parents don’t have much of a choice in the matter, when TV can helpfully keep children safe at home while parents are at work or tending to other responsibilities.

Mindless TV?

Although I am a fan of everyone taking some time to veg out in front of the TV, either together or apart (what sociologist Arlie Hochschild called ‘relational loafing’), some parents will be heartened to know that there are decades of evidence that not all TV is, in fact, ‘mindless’.

Shows like Sesame Street have long been associated with cognitive skills like increased vocabulary along with social reasoning and knowledge of the world. The PBS Ready to Learn initiative in the US developed a maths app using the character Curious George that helped level the playing field so that children from disadvantaged backgrounds could start kindergarten with the same skills as their more privileged peers. But of course not all educational media is the same, with some simply promoting rote learning like counting versus more contextual numeracy like learning to estimate.

Healthy viewing habits

Tempting as it is to plonk your children in front of well-thought out content, there’s also plenty of evidence that children learn more and are better able to integrate what they watch when they ‘co-view’ with their peers, and ideally also with adults, with some forms of digital media inviting open-ended play, helping parents and children enjoy and engage together.

Physical movement is important, but engaging with digital media doesn’t have to spell the opposite, as it can inform and support active and pretend play. My four-year-old twins and I spent many happy hours pretending to be Octonauts last summer (I’m always Shellington, the ‘nerdy sea otter’), about equal to the time spent watching the show.

Digital media can also be the basis of subject knowledge and hands-on learning. I recently led a workshop teaching pre-school children to make ‘squishy circuits’ illustrating the concept of circuitry with a clip from the new CBeebies science show Messy Goes to OKIDO. Having a story and characters to hang the experimentation on helped this group of children understand the concept and get stuck in straightaway.

Content, context, connections

  • Be thoughtful about the transition out of watching or playing – find natural breaks and help children reflect on when they think they have had enough.
  • Think about hosting viewing or playing playdates, remembering that digital media are often great for supporting children’s social skills. Here are some tips from Katie Salen Tekinbas on, for example, how to hold a Minecraft playdate, and what to do just before it’s time to switch off.
  • Know that there is amazing content out there for children, to learn, play and enjoy with them, or letting them tell you about it. Keep those conversations open.
  • Choose (or help your children choose) content carefully, and connect what they see on screen with their other experiences, for example, by acting out the story, using the characters as part of your family narratives.

Remember that content, context and connections matter more than watching the clock, so think about what, how and with what impact your children are watching and playing – watching for red flags, but allowing them some room to experiment, play and relax. That’s what summer is for.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.