My 12-year-old is totally tech-obsessed. Left to his own devices you’ll find him playing video games and watching YouTube. But he also designs his own games. In fact, he just taught himself how to create a video game from raw code, using internet tutorials as a guide.
On the one hand, I’m impressed with his skills. On the other, I worry about how many hours he spends staring at a screen. What about when summer comes and he has oodles of free time? How can I help him balance his technology interests alongside his real need to get out and enjoy some sunshine?
Do Parents Worry too much About Screen Time?
Like you, I’ve heard all the warnings about excessive screen time for kids: It’s bad for their health, development, and socialization. But aside from cases where kids are clearly addicted, could it be that parents are unduly worried about screen time? Are we overblowing the concerns in the same way our parents did about TV?
In ways, this may be true, says Vedika Narayanan, spokesperson for Digital Media Academy, a STEM summer program for kids 7-17 launched by tech educators at Stanford University, with programs across the US and Canada.
“There has been a lot of negativity around screen-time and technology for kids in the media, but we need to remember that technology is the future,” says Narayanan.
This doesn’t mean we should just let kids passively absorb technology. It’s about finding ways to make technology more meaningful for our kids—providing educational tools for our kids to take a deeper dive into the technology areas that interest them.
That’s where enrolling your kid in a creative, hands-on STEM program—either at school or through a summer enrichment program—becomes a stellar idea.
“Immersive educational experiences like coding, game design, and digital arts camps can help students retain important skills like critical thinking and problem-solving while also teaching them skills for their future careers,” Narayanan explains. “But most importantly, these programs combine a kid’s love of all things computers with a fun educational experience.”
Turn Screen Time into Social Time
One concern I have is that my son’s tech interests are hindering him from socializing. He would spend all weekend coding if we let him. Narayanan’s suggestion is not necessarily to take away the tech, but to make it more social.
“There is a huge worry that screen time is eroding our kids’ social skills,” she says. Programs like Digital Media Academy offer a way to leverage kids’ interests while simultaneously creating opportunities for peer collaboration.
“Whether it’s through gaming, game design, or content creation, they improve their communication and public speaking skills through presentations and product pitches,” describes Narayanan.
There’s also the opportunity, often missing from school-based STEM programs, to receive instruction from industry experts. Many Digital Media Academy’s instructors hold advanced degrees in their subjects and can demonstrate how these skills apply in the real world.
Exploring Future Careers
We often hear that tech is the future in terms of jobs. This may not too far-fetched. According to a report from the job analytics firm Burning Glass, there were about 7 million jobs in 2015 requiring coding skills, and programming jobs are growing 12% faster than the market average.
“More and more, companies and industries are looking for tech competencies,” Narayanan says.
Narayanan points out that “tech” doesn’t just mean programming or game creation. “Many mainstream industries are moving to an increasingly tech-focused approach: from the media, which now relies on video or podcast content creation to build audiences, to the travel industry using Artificial Intelligence or Virtual Reality to sell vacations,” she explains.
Some Digital Media Academy graduates are already seeing the fruits of their labors. “One of our students attended our Intro to Java Programming class and as a result, was offered an internship with Microsoft,” says Narayanan. “Another presented his 3D printed skateboard at a maker fair.”
As for my son, I have some renewed hope that the time he spends glued to a screen has a purpose, and that there are concrete ways to make tech more social, educational, and meaningful. Who knows, it may even pay off in the end—literally.