The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Screen Time – A Children’s Media Producer’s View


By Martin Franks,
Children's Media Producer and Director,
Adastra Creative.

There have been high-octane discussions about children and media since the advent of the printing press. Mass literacy, the cinema and then the TV all contributed to the debate (and what about the fuss over comics?). And now we are looking at the advent of personal screen devices, multiple platforms on those devices and a vast amount (though maybe not a vast ‘range’) of content. CMF was set up to bring calm and where possible ‘facts’ to debates about children and media and we need to make sure we carry on in that direction.

‘Screen-time’ can cover such a variety of devices, platforms and content that for the sake of those of us who work across the processes of creation and dissemination - and very much for the sake of our child, young person and parent audiences (CMF after all is an audience advocacy organisation) - we need to start to tease this out so that we can all feel confident that we’re producing something that is good for the vitally important growing up years - or at the least providing something that isn’t harmful.

At Adastra, like many production companies, we believe what we produce is actually good for children and young people. But of course the content should be consumed in moderation alongside lots of other good things for children’s growing-up years. We believe the hard work we put into our research and editorial precision means that, from our sort of linear/passive entertainment and edutainment programming, children will not only be entertained but will learn more about the world around them. This will help them understand people, behaviours, worlds, skills and facts that will contribute to them becoming happier and stronger adults. A huge claim but one that is shared by many fellow children's media creators who care about these things. As well as just as importantly making sure our audiences are having fun and a great emotional narrative journey.

So in looking at ‘screen time’, what we understand from the recent Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health ‘evidence review’ published in the BMJ Open journal, seems eminently sensible as a starting point. Certain types of screen useage are linked to obesity and mental health issues but we’re not really clear which, so it is vital that we tease this out. A major problem seems to be social media and teens, particularly young teen girls. Though video interaction social media for even the youngest child is now actively recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) for aiding learning and language.

At this youngest end of the age range and with a different type of media, the AAP now recommend for parents of 18-24 month old children ‘who want to introduce digital media’ that they choose ‘high quality' programming and apps to watch and play with 'alongside their young children’. And the question of course is how they choose that ‘high quality’. The recent BBC documentary series ‘Babies’ carried out a test on gross and fine motor skills for toddlers in ‘tech’ families (those who use devices) and non tech families (those who don’t). They found that despite parental fears there was no difference in gross motor skills (walking efficiently) but that there were better fine motor skills for those children who had been interactively involved with their screen devices – presumably because of swiping and tapping in relation to games and the young users’ video desires.

‘Screen time’ as a term is too blunt therefore for parents and children to use. ‘Content, Context and Child’ (Slate 2016) seems to be the key though this is not easy for busy and non-academic parents. We should therefore be encouraging he various bodies that families respect and listen to - online, print, broadcast - to review and compare different media content on different platforms and for different ages. Rather than an assumed blanket ‘screen is bad’ approach, let’s assume that used in appropriate ways ‘screen can be good’. But let’s encourage much more respected reviewing of broadcast and digital linear programmes for children as enthusiastically as we review and compare children’s books and children’s film. And let’s go back to the ‘facts’ and base assessments not on what we like as parents and professional media creators but on what we see and hear in children talking about the impact of the media they consume and how we can see that helping them to enrich their lives and in the long run become better adults.

There’s a lot of very good (as well as some bad and mediocre) children’s linear and interactive media out there being delivered on lots of different type of screen. We need to proclaim the good that screens can do (including the value of good entertainment alongside learning and edutainment) and help parents, children and young people pick through the pros and cons with reviews and, where possible, facts.

We wouldn’t say per se ‘Food is bad’ or ‘Food is good’ or if it’s good therefore we should eat it all the time; or if some food is bad we must stop eating completely. So let’s be a lot more refined about ‘screen time’ and what’s good and maybe not so good in terms of content, platforms and usage and get an honest conversation going that parents, older children and young people can tune into and be part of.

Industry Research

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)