When I was first asked to speak at TED, I was sure my talk would be about the future of technology for children and the most innovative ways to use it. As head of PBS KIDS Digital, it is my job to think about how digital tools can enhance learning for young children, particularly those who have little access to the most cutting-edge technologies.

But as I worked on my talk, I found myself compelled to focus on the issue I hear about every day: parental anxiety and stress about their kids’ screen time.

Whenever parents learn what I do, they share with me their struggles with screen time. They feel guilty, worried, and anxious about what screens are doing to their kids. More than anything, they feel helpless about how to make the best choices for their family.

I think we need to challenge our negative approach to screens and consider their potential for good. In my talk, I tackle three of the most common digital media fears:

Fear #1: Screen time is passive, and kids aren’t moving enough.

Digital media doesn’t have to make kids into couch potatoes! Games that use the camera (like Wild Kratts’ Going Batty) or that use wearable technologies (such as PBS KIDS Party app with the Moff band) get kids up and moving. What if games can encourage kids to go outside, play, and observe more of the world around them?

Fear #2: Playing games is a waste of time that is distracting kids from their education.

Digital games don’t have to be a waste of time. Games can be crafted to promote real learning. For example, research studies have shown that math games –  from Curious George to Peg + Cat, and Odd Squad — can teach kids real math skills. Our game development partners at UCLA even believe that games can help us understand more about a child’s critical thinking skills than a standardized test can. What if games could reduce testing anxiety and give teachers more insight into student learning?

Fear #3: Screens are isolating me from my kids.

Games and media can actually promote social-emotional growth and conversation. In fact, talking to kids about media can have great power. In 2016, Texas Tech University published a study showing that Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood could help children develop empathy. But the benefit was strongest when parents talked to kids about what they watched. Neither just watching nor just talking was enough – the combination was key. What if our child’s media prompted more opportunities for conversation and connection as a family?

I definitely understand the anxiety about screen time, especially as my husband and I work to find the right balance of activities for our preschoolers. In my work at both PBS KIDS and at home, I often think of the insight Fred Rogers offered us. At a time when people saw television as a “wasteland,” Mister Rogers viewed it as a tool that could help children learn and grow. He was right, and his vision continues to influence parents and TV producers. Digital media has this same potential, so let’s raise our expectations about the positives it can bring to our children’s lives.


About Sara DeWitt

As Vice President of PBS KIDS Digital, Sara DeWitt leads innovative strategies to build connected and immersive educational experiences for kids across media platforms, including the Kidscreen- and Webby-award winning DeWitt has led the extension of PBS KIDS content into new frontiers – from mobile apps and interactive whiteboard games, to wearable tech and 3D-rendered gaming experiences.

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