"'Cause every day at half past three...Me and Grandpa, time for tea."
Two page spread from Barney Saltzberg's picture book "Tea With Grandpa" (Neal Porter/Roaring Book Press, 2014)

The Other Message About Screen Time in Children’s Books

In my last several posts (here and here) I have been thinking through the ways in which children’s books might be leveraged to provide mentorship to children and their grown ups about the role of screens, technology, and media in their lives. I suggested that information books could be useful to help expand and deepen background knowledge about what media are and about issues surrounding safety and privacy. I also suggested that much of the narrative children’s literature that have screens, technology, or media in them as part of the plot convey a simple message: “screens are a problem to be overcome.”

In my review of 23 picture books recommended by academics and librarians, five titles did NOT convey this message. Tea With Grandpa is one of these five (see picture from this title, above). In this title, a child has tea every day with her Grandpa. The reader meets the child’s cat and the grandfather’s dog and can observe the ways love can be shared between two people–singing songs, playing pretend, dancing, clinging teacups. The reader does not know until the last spread of the text, though, that the tea time is a virtual one. The child’s Grandpa lives far away and they leverage video chat to meet up every single day. Can you imagine how special the use of technology and screens must be for this child and her grandpa? Screens are the connective thread that build on and strengthen this relationship, and its result (expressions of JOY and LOVE) is mutual.

A second title in this group was Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love. You may recognize this book because of its recent Oscar win for best short film. In any case, Hair Love is about Zuri, a little girl, who has big plans for a new hairstyle. The only trouble is that she does not know how to make it happen without help. She wants to ask her father for help, but finds him sleeping and Zuri decides to let him rest because “Lately Daddy has been worn-out!” Zuri goes for the next best source of tutorial–her tablet. The only trouble is that she drops her tablet and wakes her dad before she gets to getting her hair done. Dad tries several different hairstyles, but none is quite what Zuri was hoping for. Do you know where Dad goes for help? Yep–the internet (presumably YouTube)–and “He nailed it!” Zuri, Mom, and Dad are all thrilled. Dad attributes his success to learning “from the best.”

Page excerpted from Hair Love (Kokila/Penguin Random House, 2019) where Zuri and her father use a tablet to find out how to do Zuri’s hair.

Sometimes, the internet affords humanity opportunities to connect and learn in ways that are important to recognize and amplify in a social and historical context where screens are often portrayed as the “problem to be solved.” These two examples (and those in the other three titles I identified) do this. Did you know that video calling such as Skype and Facetime is one online activity sanctioned (and the only for children under 18 months) by the American Academy of Pediatrics in their 2016 policy statement, “Media and Young Minds“? Why don’t we see more examples in picture books highlighting this positive and sanctioned use of screens and technology?

What about using the internet for researching new information? Precedent exists there, too, in the research and policy documents. The 2018 “Statement on Young Children and Digital Technologies” from Early Childhood Australia suggests, “Some families may view digital technologies as useful tools for accessing and enjoying digital content and information” (p. 7). And the London School of Economics and Political Science research group, spearheaded by Sonia Livingstone, also point to positives when children have access to information. Hair Love and Tea for Grandpa effectively capture such positives.

Who’s to know whether the future will provide children and their grown ups an alternate lens into the screentime debate through the books they read. Right now it seems that most of the books that seem to address screentime highlight the ills rather than the benefits. I’ve put on my critical literacy hat and have begun to start seriously questioning the one-sidedness authors and publishers are feeding us around this topic. Publishers need to do better for children and their grown ups. There is more to the debate than a “problem to be solved” through restriction of screens and devices.

I’ve just read one piece of news from Slate that leans toward the “let’s not be so pessimistic” end of the debate. Here, the conclusions are (a) that we tend to allow correlational data to induce fear, and (b) “It’s not so much the screen that causes problems, but the fact that it often supplants opportunities to engage in richer activities instead.” My hope is that we come to a point where we all can think about screens in a more nuanced way–a way that presents some screens some times for some children in some contexts as being among those “rich” activities. Critically examining the messages sent to children and their grownups–through all forms of media including books, television programming, film, and popular news–is one step in that direction.

About the author

Katie Paciga

Katie A. Paciga, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Education at Columbia College Chicago. She studies early language and literacy development and children's media.

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