Screen Time Actually Makes My Kid More Creative

The other day, my 12-year-old called me downstairs. I came into the kitchen and groaned; she was propped on the speckled counter, staring into her iPhone.

“Haven’t you had enough screen time today?” I asked. “Put your phone away.”

“Mom, wait,” she implored, “this is what I wanted to show you.” She then handed me her phone where a video was playing on the screen: In a cleverly condensed time-lapse, spanning 60 seconds, she had captured herself meticulously applying face paint — in a whimsical rainbow pattern fanning out from her eyes, nose and mouth — and then carefully removing it so the video both began and ended with a fresh face.

“Whoa!” was my immediate reply, before asking that she replay it. “Where did you even learn to DO that?” I asked — in a nod to both the face painting and the videography. Standing in the kitchen, I had a startling realization: I have witnessed my daughter’s creativity simultaneously dwindle and blossom upon the introduction of an iPhone into her life.

First things first: Times have definitely changed. My daughter no longer spends hours at the kitchen table illustrating books she has written or compiling intricate outfits for the models in her Fashion Plates (the vintage 1978 toy made a comeback about five years ago, didn’t you know?). That said, exposure to today’s pop culture has urged her toward songwriting, which is amazing. There are days after school when she locks herself in her bedroom-turned-recording studio, gleaning song lyrics from a Karaoke app, plucking out some chords she learned from watching a YouTube video, and sings her heart out while recording it all on her phone.

Alice has also become quite the photographer. She assembles still-life arrangements, capturing empty bottles in just the right sunlight and happily making mini-adjustments while snapping away with her $10 telephoto lens. Her photos are stunning and capture the gamut of activities in which she participates — from the long lashes of her favorite horse to her mud-caked Converse All-Stars after a walk in the woods. It’s been inspiring to witness her creativity being sparked during otherwise quotidian activities.

Child screen creativity
Image: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, of course. The American Academy of Pediatrics’(AAP) report on Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents highlights the detrimental effects of prolonged exposure to screens. Screen time has been shown to be a risk factor in obesity and depression; evidence suggests that media use can negatively affect kids’ sleep, which in turn affects academic performance in school. Plus, spending time on social media has been shown to correlate with a decreased interest in “real life” relationships. Now factor in inevitable exposure to high-risk behaviors including alcohol, tobacco and sex via the internet…and you might be questioning the decision to get your kid a phone in the first place.

But herein lies the rub: Screens can be tools to create, connect and learn.

Of course, they are not the only means of doing any of these things. And for school-aged children and adolescents like Alice, the AAP promotes balancing media use with other healthy behaviors.  

How? Parents can work with their school-aged children to create a Family Media Use Plan to set up healthy parameters around screen time and media exposure. Other tips for parents to employ? Place consistent limits on the time spent using media; designate media-free time together, such as during dinner or while driving; establish ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety — all among recommendations by the AAP for adolescent media use.

I waited for what felt like forever (to my kids) to get them phones in the first place; my oldest was in 8th grade and my youngest in 5th when the iPhone SE finally appeared under the tree as holiday gifts. My younger daughter’s device was simply Wi-Fi enabled (aka she had no phone number). But the times they are a-changin’ — I finally caved, and yesterday a new SIM card arrived. Now that she is playing JV sports at school, I need her to have a phone in order to call from the road and update me on pick-up times at school. Which means we are about to go back to the drawing board and establish some new guidelines for moving forward.

My daughters and I all continue to weigh the pros and cons of screen time, which means the iPhone is seen for what it is: a tool, not purely a distraction. While on the one hand, I worry that Alice’s creativity is being stymied at every turn by technology — and the hours she inevitably spends each day on SnapChat and Instagram — I do know she is being inspired by a whole world of creatives online. These “friends” not only use their phones to share what they’ve created, but also credit their phones as the very vehicles responsible for bringing about said creativity. At the end of the day, it’s all about balance. 

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