All Screen Time Should Not Be Considered Equal

by Rena Shifflet

As the influx of technological devices in the lives of young children has evolved, so has the concept of “screen time.” Recommendations for the amount of exposure to screen time were originally based on children’s TV viewing. Agencies like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children under the age of two should not watch TV, videos, or DVDs at all. Today, the Internet provides access to digital media with capabilities beyond passive viewing, on an ever increasing variety of devices. Children can now access videos, games, educational apps, even Skype with grandma on computers, tablets, and phones in addition to TVs. This variety in digital media content has resulted in a reconsideration of screen time. In lieu of recommending a specific number of hours, the AAP now recommends parents create a family media plan that takes into account each individual child’s needs, as well as the benefits and challenges that come with children’s media use (see Online media plan tool).

Rather than using the element of time to designate limits on screen time, we should consider how the devices are being used. A distinction must be made between creativity and consumption – are children passively consuming media or are they actively engaged in some type of creative production? Devorah Heinter cautions this should not be considered an “either or” situation, but more of a continuum. For example, passively watching YouTube videos on how to use Minecraft can lead to cognitive engagement and creative problem solving, while watching numerous episodes of Paw Patrol will not. Likewise, there is a difference in the degree of creativity. Curating or reposting the content of others is not at the same level as creating original material and sharing those creations via online sites.

Here are just a few of the many ways screens can be used to promote creativity.

Making Art


Students can use a pencil to draw or stamp shapes using a variety of colors. Consider offering a challenge of using a specific number of shapes or limiting it to just a single shape. Students can narrate a story to go with their creation. All the student drawings can be uploaded to VoiceThread to create a class collection. Students can then individually record a narration for their picture. (See this earlier eceteachertalk blog post for more information on Voice Thread)

  • Bord (Free for Android; $1.99 for IOS)


This app lets children create original artwork on a green or black chalkboard background. Tools include six different chalk and size options. The app chalk functions the same as actual chalk. The more strokes applied to the same area, the more concentrated the color will become, just as all the chalk will not be removed with the first pass of the eraser.

Making Stories


Children can make their own story book by dragging images onto the page. Simple sentence frames can be completed. Finished stories can be saved and read by a narrator.


Storybird, a web-based app, is more complex. Students can use professional artwork to create their stories in the form of picture books or poems. They can then write a story to fit the images they have selected. Keep in mind, users must be 13 years of age to become a member but a parent’s email address can be used for younger children. The parent will receive an email when the child becomes a “storybird.”

Making Music


Children are charged with creating a band. They have 16 band members, each with a unique appearance and talent from which to choose. Characters can be placed on the “golden star platform” to perform a solo. While there is basically one song, children can experiment and manipulate the instruments to create many variations.

Programming by Design – Early Childhood Coding

The word “coding” can spark concern among early childhood educators. How can children who have yet learned how to read, learn how to code? Mitchel Resnick, MIT Professor of Learning Research and head of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, considers coding to be an essential literacy. The newly released standards from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) call for all students to be “computational thinkers” and “innovative designers.” “As young children code with ScratchJr, they develop design and problem-solving skills that are foundational for later academic success,” said Marina Umaschi Bers, professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts, and director of the Tufts’ Development Technologies research group which co-developed ScratchJr. “By using math and language in a meaningful context, they develop early-childhood numeracy and literacy.”

Perhaps the most impressive observation I’ve made when watching young children use coding apps, is their resiliency. Rather than becoming defeated and quitting when a path they’ve set doesn’t work as intended, they are anxious to try again! Since there is little risk associated with this trial and error environment, students are more than willing to pursue alternate solutions; a great way to learn from mistakes! I can’t encourage you enough to try these apps out on your own and judge the value they have to offer for yourself.


Students can program their own interactive stories and games by dragging LEGO-like pieces that snap together to create a command sequence for Scratch the cat. After some carefully planned instruction to guide students through the activities, students as young as 5 will be ready to modify existing programs and begin constructing their own interactive stories.



This app was specifically designed to be used with children as young as 4-year-olds. The Foos has three worlds, each with its own set of programmable characters. Children create a series of actions by dragging blocks at the bottom of the screen to create a series of commands in order to help a character achieve a goal, such as earning stars or capturing the Glitch. As children progress, the levels become more challenging requiring more complex programming skills, making this app suitable for a range of ages.

Final Thoughts

As with all things, creativity is in the eyes of the beholder. Not every child will get excited about the same creative outlet, and no one app or website offers more creative potential than another. Playing with each of these apps can only help in determining possible matches for the children you know so well.

I hope this has helped to offer an alternative perspective about children and screen time. 

Rena Shifflet spent over thirty years in public education as a classroom teacher and district technology coordinator. As an assistant professor at Illinois State University, Rena works with preservice elementary education majors and practicing educators.


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