A book about balancing screen time and outdoor time

I wanted to write about the book Dot. by Zuckerberg and Berger. It’s an intriguing book that reviewers on Amazon either love or hate, and it inspires debate about the place of screen time in children’s lives.

First, an overview of the book. This is a picture book for 3 – 6 year olds, with appealing illustrations, a charming main character (6 or 7 years old?), and an engaging story line.

It begins with Dot using her laptop and tablet – “She knows how to tap… to touch… to tweet… and to tag.” We also see her using a cell phone and Skype / FaceTime to talk and talk and talk. She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time with her tech. (Though her dog is looking pretty disappointed in this sedentary, indoor lifestyle.)

But then Dot succumbs to a moment of exhausted ennui.

Mom says “Go outside… time to recharge!” Dot sleepwalks out the door.

But then, outside, she smiles. She remembers… “to tap… to touch…. to tweet… to tag… to talk and talk and talk.” (This time the illustrations show her tap dancing, touching a sunflower, tweeting like the birds in the tree, tagging friends in a game, and talking while walking in the fields, always smiling and always accompanied by friends.)

She is bright, happy, and enjoying her time outside with friends.

But she hasn’t completely abandoned technology – on the last page, she uses her phone to snap a photo of a friend, and another friend is using a tablet, as they swing, and paint, and play outside with their dogs.

The negative reviews

Some reviewers are dumb-founded that a child would even use technology in this way (leaving me to wonder whether they’re parents themselves and if so, if their kids are now middle aged adults… My 22 year old was using a mouse and a desktop computer to play games at the age of three – definitely a digital native. My 5 year old learned how to swipe to the next photo on my phone when he was 8 or 9 months old. Not just a digital native – totally immersed in the mobile technology world, like most children his age. (Read here about how much screen time children have in the U.S.)

Multiple negative reviews talk about the unlimited screen time and the lack of parental supervision in the book. “I don’t know any 6 year old who has such free reign with so many tech devices and, even worse, goes unsupervised. Is this really what our world has come to? I think not, and the idea of suggesting something so absurd is upsetting to me.” It is true that we don’t SEE a parent in the book. But this is OFTEN the case with children’s books: as one commenter said “Where are Harold’s parents, for that matter, and why does the poor child have only a purple crayon? How could those Seuss children’s mother have left them home alone for the whole day, and didn’t she teach them NOT to open the door to strangers?” But it is the mother who intervenes and sends the child outdoors to play. So, clearly there is supervision and there are screen time limits.

And of course, other reviewers were appalled that the child was allowed any screen time, citing concerns about the harms of radiation from cell phones, obesity, online stalking, adult websites, and more. (You can read my summary about benefits and risks of screen time here.)  “As parents, our job is to shield young children from information technology in the early years of life, not encourage it. Just where does Dot get her tech devices? She cannot afford them on her own, so her parent must be purchasing them for her. This sets the wrong precedent about our role as parents of young children: Parents as addiction enablers, not protectors.”

Other reviewers note that the character tweets and shares (presumably on Facebook) which are not typically activities that a 6 year old girl (like our protagonist) would do, and certainly not what a 3 – 5 year old (like our audience) would do. I was willing to let this slide, because of how they play with the words “tweet” and “share” later on in a different context.

There’s others who feel like it’s an advertisement for technology – the author, Randi Zuckerberg is the sister of Facebook founder Mark Z.

Positive Reviews:

My 3 year-old is enjoying this book. Tonight she says “Go outside Dot!” and that’s the message that she’s getting. Technology is fun but after a while you need to go outside.

“The “Dot.” character is extremely loveable and its easy to relate to her journey as she struggles with the differing forces in today’s society — the pull of technology versus being outside in nature and developing a sense of community.”

“I ordered this book to read as the technology facilitator for a k-5 school. Kids love it…Opens the floor for good conversation.”

I bought this book for my three-year-old son and he absolutely loves it. He knew how to ‘swipe’ on an iPad shortly after turning one. I love the overall message of the story, as technology is a big part of our culture and it is not going away. This book reminds us while technology is exciting and beneficial to our daily lives, so is enjoying friends, family and the outdoors. As we move into the future I want my son to always remember the importance of this balance, and I think this story represents that message well.

“I am a pediatrician in practice for 20yrs and really like that it brings up the importance of getting outside & playing. Since it is a reality that children are on electronics starting from a young age, the idea that what they learn on the computer can be made fun & relate to the outside world is a great concept. Its an easy way for parents & kids to have a simple conversation about the importance of balance in their life starting from a young age.”

My thoughts

This is a cute little book. I’m not saying “wow, one of the best books I’ve ever read.” But it is a nice read, and a good basic summary of the need to find a balance between technology and outdoor / active / social play. It’s a good discussion starter.

Some parents choose to strictly limit their children’s exposure to screens. If you’re a screen-free family (or very limited screen use), this is not the book for you.

But if you are a family who uses a lot of technology, and tries to balance it with other opportunities, this could be a good book to share with your children about the joys of other types of play.

You can check out my collection of Tips for Making Screen Time Work for Your Family.

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