Screen Time in an Era of Social Isolation

Screen time in an Era of Social Isolation
Photo credit: Sapna Parikh/New York University

I’m a parent of two teenage boys who are obsessed with playing video games. I’m also a researcher who studies game-based learning. My partner thinks technology is a soul-sucking menace. You can imagine the lively conversations about screen time we have at home. 

Something changed, however, when we decided to practice social isolation to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. No more school, no more soccer practice, no more hanging out with friends, cancelled birthday parties and social gatherings, and no more movies, bars, and restaurants. A new question presented itself…  How can we make sure that such physical isolation does not lead to social isolation?

Living in this new “wartime” reality, we should reconsider what the rules regarding Screen Time for teens should be.

Some basic rules, such as no phones at mealtime, no screen time before and during bedtime, or determining what games or apps are appropriate for your child, should of course persist. The Mayo Clinic approach to screen time is especially useful to establish your own rules. However, I believe that the focus on screen Time is counterproductive, especially now that our familiar ways of life are being interrupted. We should instead focus on Screen Content Limits.

But which contents should be favored? Here are some  benefits of digital media that we should consider when deciding what our teenagers get to do on ‘screens‘ and for how long.  Over the next weeks, I will elaborate on each of these in separate posts.

Interest-Driven Learning

If you are like me, then your children’s long stories about what prank their favorite YouTuber played on others makes you question why any screen time should be allowed at all. But then again, my 14-year old recently showed me the Synthesia version he found of Khachaturian’s Waltz, which he is learning on the piano, and my 16-year old taught himself how to use FL Studio, a digital audio workstation, to produce his own rap songs. Clearly, this interest-driven, on-demand learning is something we should encourage, not limit.

Social Connections

In the videogames research conducted in the CREATE research lab that I direct at New York University, we have time and again observed how the notion of the socially isolated teenage video game player who dwells in their parents’ basement is outdated. Nowadays, teens like to play games that connect them to others, and where they can practice 21st Century skills such as communication, team collaboration, creativity, and the like. I would not go so far as Jordan Shapiro, who believes children should start using social media at much younger ages, but research has shown the social benefits of teens playing games with friends. In addition, I’ve found that when I take the time to play games with my kids, I find new ways to relate to them that other media, such as TV, do not allow.

Emotional Design for Learning

As I described in a previous post, emotion and learning are tightly connected , and video games are exquisitely designed to emotionally engage players. We have studied emotional design for learning for many years and have found that positive emotions induced by the design of the learning materials enhance learning outcomes for science learning as well as for cognitive skills training. Other benefits are that games allow teens to practice emotion regulation, i.e., their ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience, which is something we can all benefit from when we shelter in place.

Mental Health Benefits

Relatedly, limited opportunities to see friends, move around, or in general follow our usual routine is something we are not accustomed to. Being exposed to some of these restrictions, however, reminds us of the thousands of children who are refugees from war-torn areas such as Syria, or from genocide, such as Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar, who experience these restrictions on a daily basis. In our research with Syrian refugee children in Turkey we found that playing Minecraft over the course of a month-long intervention resulted in significant improvements in children’s positive outlook on life. When your real life affords very little control over your circumstances, being able to design a world in which you have full control is an important part of mental well-being.

Cognitive Benefits

Games also have important cognitive benefits. As my colleague Daphne Bavelier has found in her research, even the most violent video games can improve our visual perception skills, such as contrast resolution, object tracking, and peripheral vision. We developed three games to train cognitive skills and have found that they can improve brain functions. These games are available for free in the AppStore and on Google Play.

Other benefits of games include increased physical activity, increased empathy, and reduced stress, among others, which I will discuss in future posts.

Having said all of this, my partner reminds me that there is so much more to life than apps and games, and that real connection to our world and each other far outweighs any online benefits. I completely agree, but given we may be stuck in our home for some time, I take solace in the fact that, when my boys are once again in their rooms and on their screens, they use games, apps, and digital media than can actually benefit them and may help them grow creatively and yes, even socially.