Screens On, Screens Off, Screens On the Side

As I spend more time thinking about screentime, I’ve been thinking a lot about balance in our lives. More specifically, I’ve been defining screentime in the context of my life, and the lives of the individuals in my family. This also means that I’ve been thinking about types of interactions we have with screens in and out of the house.

I don’t have much use for thinking about screentime limits, or balance using blanket guidelines based on time. I think it is impossible to remove all screens from our lives. I also think there are instances where screentime can be beneficial.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of three types of interactions with screens: screens on, screens off, screens on the side. I’ve been thinking about this framework after reading The Art of Screentime by Anya Kamenetz.

Screens On

“Screens on” time refers to time spent with technological devices, or in front of screens. The key factor in this relationship is the interaction with a display device, and a significant amount of attention in the interaction is paid to content on the screen.

This may include passive consumption, or active creation of content. This means that it might include watching television or playing video games. It may include surfing the Internet or coding.

This does not involve wearable technologies (Apple/Android Watches, FitBits, etc.) as of yet. It does involve tablets, mobile devices, etc.

We try to keep the amount of time spent with “Screens On” to an hour or two per day. This is often a challenge when I’m teaching, or working on other materials. But, I reflect at the end of the day on how much time I spent…and how I might spend it in the other two areas.

Screens Off

“Screens Off” time refers to time spent away from technological devices, or not in front of screens. The key factor in this relationship is the lack of a display device in the environment. Most of the attention in these interactions is paid to the self, or other individuals in the room.

In my house, this may involve music playing in the room, or listening to an audio podcast. But it should not include video, or interactions with a screen.

Wearable technologies should be removed and set off to the side. They present too many opportunities to catch one glimpse…or just respond to that one notification.

We’re somewhat intentional in our inclusion of “screens off” time in our house. This may be when the kids play, create art, or relax. As a parent, I may join them in these activities, or clean/fold clothes.

Screens On The Side

“Screens on the side” refers to times spent working and using devices on the side for assistance, or a resource. The key factor in this relationship is the attention and focus on the self or other individuals in the room. Focus is also usually paid to an activity or project. As an example, this may include using a tablet to display directions, or a video as we cook together.

This is identified by targeted, active consumption of content. Passive consumption of content is not usually included as it detracts from the project or task at hand. The use of screens on the side is important as it aids in the completion of the task.

This may include music, or audio podcasts playing in the room as long as it does not distract from the purpose of the task, project, or interaction.

Screens on the side time is viewed as an asset as it provides opportunities to work collaboratively, or individually to accomplish a task or goal. As such, we are increasingly trying to find more times to embed this in our daily activities.

Interactions with screens

How do you think about these uses of screens in your lives? How might they modify your interactions with these tools and spaces? Are there other elements that we might include…or leave out?

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About the author

Ian O'Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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