Can technology make kids more self-sufficient?

Too much screen time has long been one of modern parents’ biggest concerns. But during a pandemic? It’s off the charts. Who among us hasn’t plugged our kids into an endless loop of Frozen II or allowed another 30 minutes of Minecraft — as a last-ditch attempt to get through just one work call uninterrupted? 

One recent survey of more than 3,000 parents found that screen time for their kids increased by 500% during the last few months. And guess what? That’s not necessarily the brain-melting, social-stunting no-no we — not so long ago — thought it would be. 

Of course, parents still need to make technology safe by teaching moderation, healthy consumption habits, and using parental controls to block off danger zones. While we work on that, there’s a chance for kids to discover an enormous world of self-sufficiency and empowerment through technology. Even kids who can’t read yet can use technology to connect socially, get answers to questions, learn, be entertained, and even get a little more exercise in their day. Here are a few key ways technology can help make kids more self-sufficient starting today. 

Eighty-four percent of survey respondents believe that technology has improved their connections with family and friends.
Eighty-four percent of survey respondents believe that technology has improved their connections with family and friends.

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Seek knowledge, little grasshopper

The first thing most adults do when they don’t know the answer to a question is to pull out a phone or open a Web browser to get an instant response. When we don’t know how to make bread or fix a broken toilet, we watch a video. And the truth is, our kids are often better at using these tools than we are — so why not let them?

With a bit of supervision most kids — even young ones — can learn something that their parents, and sometimes even their teachers, might not be able to teach them about. “One of the things happening,” says Grant Hosford, CEO and co-founder of codeSpark, a game-based app for learning about coding concepts, “is that people realize kids can take control around parts of their own learning. The teacher is important of course, but can play different roles at times, maybe more as a coach or mentor than traditional ‘I know everything’ instructor.”

Sara Potler LaHayne, CEO of Move This World, a social-emotional learning program for schools and families, says before the pandemic, she had a zero screen time policy with her two young daughters. But since the pandemic, she’s less strict about it and admits that her children are actually benefiting from it.

“My daughter is bilingual and recently asked me during bedtime, how to say ‘thunder’ in Spanish. I couldn’t think of the answer.” So her daughter asked Alexa — who immediately came right back with “el trueno.” Even without a screen involved, LaHayne says, “we can show kids ways to take agency over their own learning.”

With the right tools, this concept can extend far beyond getting a simple answer to simple questions too. “What codeSpark does,” explains Hosford, “is take the best engagement from video games and work it into a platform that’s built to teach computational thinking and coding.” Hosford says CodeSpark works for young children, special needs kids, kids who don’t read, and those who don’t speak English. “It has a no-words interface so kids as young as four and five can use it,” he says.

There are other tools that do this too, and Hosford says in the near future, we’ll see even more online learning that’s less like “chocolate-covered broccoli” and more like true learning in a motivating and engaging package.

Kids begin to manage their own time

Time management is something many adults struggle with, yet some of today’s connected kids have already figured out how to use tech tools to replace nagging parents — and it’s helping families quite a bit.

“We’re lucky we have the opportunity to work from home,” says Dawn Brun who works at Amazon Kids & Family. “But our kids have to step up and manage their own schedule because, during the day, we may not have time to help with everything.”

When Brun admitted this to her daughter, she says amazing things started to happen. “My daughter loves reminders,” Brun says. This task often falls to parents. We remind them to do homework, chores, go to bed, and more. And most of us use some sort of calendar or tool on our phone to help us keep it all straight.

“My daughter is nine,” explains. “She doesn’t have a phone.” But the house has several Amazon Echoes. And she knows how to use them. “She says things like, ‘Alexa, remind me my math homework is due on Thursday.’”

The Echo Plus (2nd Gen) is more than a smart speaker—it's a hub.
The Echo Plus (2nd Gen) is more than a smart speaker—it’s a hub.

Once she’d used the Echo to take over the task of managing her own reminders and schedule, she turned it into a social connection. Brun had already set up a limited list of people her daughter could reach through the Echo, to be a little safer too. 

“There will be times where I walk upstairs,” says Brun, “to check-in and she’ll be talking to my mom or my dad.” Brun’s parents are on the other side of the country, physically, and isolated by the pandemic — so being able to keep this relationship with their grandchildren has been great for them, too.

Brun also set up chore charts using Amazon Blueprints, so instead of keeping a chore chart and reminding the kids to do chores, the kids just ask Alexa, “What chores do I have to do?”

“What my daughter really missed, though,” says Brun. “Was the ability to read books from the library at school and discuss them with her friends.”

Now empowered by technology, the nine-year-old solved this one even before her mom had time to step in.

“My nephew and daughter both have the Kindle Kids Edition,” Brun explains. “That comes with a built-in library of thousands of books. So, they decided to read the same book and use the Echo Show video chat to do their own book club.”

This deal will help expand your little ones' horizons.
This deal will help expand your little ones’ horizons.

That’s the goal. And all it required, for this nine-year-old and her mom, was accepting that nine is old enough to step up. Connecting through Facetime, the Echo Show, or any other online social tool doesn’t require a ride or even — if the parental controls are good — adult supervision. Kids can set up their own playdates, ask a relative to help with homework, get answers to their own questions, or even to seek out knowledge that isn’t available at home or at school.

What about their bodies?

“One real concern parents have,” says Julie Crabill, chief marketing officer for GoNoodle, providers of movement and mindfulness videos created by child development experts, is “what kids are not doing because of the amount of time they spend in front of screens.”

Much of that concern centers around activity. “We’re starting to talk to parents about back to school and we’re hearing a lot of concern that kids need brain breaks during school time. They need movement breaks.”

This, too, is something kids can, apparently, be trusted to manage, even at a young age.

LaHayne first started introducing screens into her young daughter’s lives with apps and videos that foster movement and creativity. “My toddler is allowed to use the screen to do her yoga. After that, we need to do something that’s not on the screen.”

When your kids are parked in front of a computer for too long, you could sweep in and turn the screen off — as you probably did before the pandemic — and tell everyone to go outside (like my mom always did). Or, maybe more effective these days, is to offer options that can easily become part of their routine — no adult supervision needed. Adults have been madly embracing things like Calm, Peloton, Mirror, and Masterclass to help with this very issue.

GoNoodle’s content, says Crabill. “is all movement and mindfulness. It’s about helping kids get up off the couch, dance, move, jump, weave, etc. There are videos and interactive games that ask them to swat at bees or fly through space.” There’s also mindfulness content. “This includes yoga, calming down, and positive thinking, which is something we’re getting a lot of requests for right now.”

The first step on this road to empowerment and learning is to let go — in moderation of course — of control of the screen and, as Brun did, ask the kids to step up. Who knows what might happen from there?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: During coronavirus, technology helping to make kids self-sufficient