Imagine someone traveling through time to the days before the internet, regaling audiences with fantastical tales of a future in which children can access devices containing the sum of all human knowledge and which gain new powers daily to instruct, create and bring people together.

Now imagine this time traveler describing the reactions of most parents to these devices—not celebration, but fear, guilt and anxiety over how much time their children spend with them.

That’s where we are today. Parents are frequently admonished that the most important thing to do with iPhones, iPads and computers is limit children’s access to them.

But educators and researchers are beginning to acknowledge the ways technology can be a tool for learning and development, rather than merely a danger. Contrary to advice I myself have found persuasive in the past, the surprising conclusion of this new thinking could be that some children will spend more time—not less—with screens. It’s a natural consequence of the growing capabilities of the devices at our disposal.

The American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended parents simply limit children’s time on screens. The association changed those recommendations in 2016 to reflect profound differences in levels of interactivity between TV, on which most previous research was based, and the devices children use today.

Where previous guidelines described all screen time for young children in terms of “exposure,” as if screen time were a toxic substance, new guidance allows for up to an hour a day for children under 5 and distinguishes between different kinds of screen use—say, FaceTime with Grandma versus a show on YouTube.

One way to sum up the new way of thinking is to differentiate between “passive” screen time, such as viewing videos, and “active” time, including creative pursuits but also (parent-approved) videogames, says AnnMarie Thomas, director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., where her team creates hands-on learning experiences for children of all ages. Limiting passive time could be the new version of limiting screen time.

There are legitimate concerns about children and screen time, ranging from physical inactivity to online bullying and even an increase in mental-health issues in teens. Watching video remains, unfortunately, a huge portion of the average U.S. child’s waking hours. According to recent data, children between ages 2 and 11 spend four-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens. That cuts into physical activity, socialization and the good kind of boredom that spawns creativity and resourcefulness, researchers say.

For the average U.S. child, less screen time is unquestionably a better alternative to what most of them are doing now.

‘Extraordinary Learning’

But for parents who want it, there’s an even better alternative to banning screens, and it’s more realistic given the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets. Of U.S. homes with children age 8 and under, 98% have some kind of mobile device, up from 52% in 2011, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which advocates for safe media and technology for children.

Instead of enforcing time-based rules, parents should help children determine what they want to do—consume and create art, marvel at the universe—and make it a daily part of screen life, says Anya Kamenetz, a journalist and author of the coming book “The Art of Screen Time—How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life.”

In doing so, parents can offer “extraordinary learning” experiences that weren’t possible before such technology came along, says Mimi Ito, director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine and a cultural anthropologist who has studied how children actually use technology for over two decades.

“Extraordinary learning” is what happens when children’s interests turn to passion, and a combination of tech and the internet provides a bottomless well of tools, knowledge and peers to help them pursue these passions with intensity characteristic of youth.

It’s about more than parents spending time with children. It includes steering them toward quality and letting them—with breaks for stretching and visual relief, of course—dive deep without a timer.

There are many examples of such learning, whether it is children teaching themselves to code with the videogame Minecraft or learning how to create music and shoot videos. Giving children this opportunity allows them to learn at their own, often-accelerated pace.

“The damage that a lot of the time-based regulation [of screens] has done is, it really doesn’t provide parents with tools to look at what the quality of engagement is,” Dr. Ito says.

The New Screen Time

Until recently, in my own household I focused more on banning screens for most of the week than on what my children were doing with that time. But watching them integrate technology into learning and creative play, from digital photography to discussions spawned by documentaries, changed my mind. I still prioritize exercise and face time over FaceTime, but I’ve ceased tracking how much screen time my kids are getting and instead think about whether their overall needs are being met.

Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and author of the AAP’s screen and media guidelines for young children, says the AAP’s revised advice was intended to inspire parents of children over age 5 to think similarly.

Adopting this philosophy can lead to counterintuitive inversions of the old rules. Drs. Ito and Thomas make screen time part of their families’ engaged, together time. The result is more instances of extraordinary learning, including writing and reading fiction, self-guided studies in mathematics and learning to fly from a simulator.

Encouraging “active” time on screens is just the latest realization of a timeworn insight we must be reminded of with every new generation of tech—education and entertainment can be the same.

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