Screen time helps build next generation of techies

What makes a kid a future entrepreneur or tech wizard? Of course that’s an impossible question, with a million answers and no consensus. And I’m not claiming any expertise beyond a lifetime as a tech entrepreneur and concerned parent (father of several successful entrepreneurs and tech wizards). kids-computers-flickrcc-donnie-ray-rones

But I do say that easy access to keyboards, computers and the right kind of video/online/tablet games are steps in the right direction. And good for kids.

Do you have kids in your house? Do you regulate their screen time?

I’d like you to take a second look at kids and computers. Not all screen time is the same thing. And I’m pretty sure the right kind of screen activities can be good for kids. I’m not suggesting that unlimited access to mobile devices, living on the smart phone, is good for anybody. But some kinds of games, and screen time connected to keyboards can be really good.

Not that all parents want their kids to be entrepreneurs or techies — nor should they. But some do, and for any kid in 2015, a comfortable relationship with technology is a good thing. High tech is not going away.

I draw from my experience first:

  • My brother and I grew up in the 1950s with strategy games. Sure, we played football, baseball and basket ball first. But we also spent hours with strategy board games moving pieces of cardboard over a map. We learned how to optimize results within a framework of set rules while playing, and it was good for us.
  • I argued with my son’s fourth-grade teacher back in the 1980s about his bad handwriting. She worried about it; I didn’t. Even back then I knew they needed keyboarding skills, not handwriting. Fast forward to today, and wow, I was so right.
  • My five kids grew up with computers and some computer games. They’re now ages 28 to 40, and all in high tech. I treasure the hours I spent playing computer strategy games with one or the other (and so, they tell me, do they). With Warcraft and Age of Empires (real-time strategy games) they learned how economic resources trump military power. With Diablo and Dark Crystal they solved puzzles and planned ahead. And these games were collaborative, the opposite of isolating.

Aside from my experience, there is research. The American Psychological Association reviewed research on video games for an article in the February 2014 issue of its journal Monitor on Psychology. They found:

  • “While one widely held view maintains that playing video games is intellectually lazy, such play actually may strengthen a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception, according to several studies.”
  • “Playing video games may also help children develop problem- solving skills, the authors said. The more adolescents reported playing strategic video games, such as role- playing games, the more they improved in problem solving and school grades the following year, according to a long-term study published in 2013.”

Last weekend I watched grandkids aged 7, 8 and 9 spend a couple of hours together, collaboratively, solving puzzles involved in a Lego-based game getting Lego-character super heroes through mazes and over obstacles. It reminded me of the real-time strategy and role-playing games of 20 years ago. It was good for them.

And then there’s Minecraft, in which kids create new worlds of structures and adventures using virtual block landscapes, managing resources and building virtual things. There are lots of other examples of good computer games, including some in which kids program robots, solving puzzles with programming sequence. Or consider Scratch, the programming language MIT developed for kids to play with.

So, yes, I agree with all of you generation X and millennial parents that you need to limit screen time in general, and particularly those mobile devices that end up replacing real life with non-stop txt messages, or endless cartoons and such. But don’t treat all screen time as the same. Differentiate between screen time with keyboards, programming and programming-like games, strategy and adventure games, and other potentially educational computing experiences.

Some “screen time” is good for these kids in my opinion. And whether or not it encourages them to be future entrepreneurs, if it helps them develop the right kind of familiarity with technology, it can’t be that bad.

(Note: this is an only slight modification of  my latest column for the Eugene Register Guard, my local newspaper in Eugene, Oregon.) (Illustration: thanks to Donnie Rae, Flickr, creative commons)

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