Screen-time for our Third Culture Kids

Image by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay
We’re all wary of too much screen-time, but does it offer our Third Culture Kids some potentially meaningful cultural and linguistic exposure?

We parents live today in fear of screen-time. Am I destroying my child’s brain by letting her watch too much YouTube? Am I creating a person whose attention span is shorter than a goldfish’s? We’ve all heard about research showing that too much screen-time, particularly for the little ones, is detrimental to their development.

At the same time, as expats raising our children in a foreign land, could screen-time—in moderation!—potentially have a role to play in the development of a child’s cultural identification with ‘back home’ and with language acquisition?

(My disclaimer: I don’t intend in the least to suggest that screen-time can supplant books and interacting with others from the ‘home’ culture and language. I only mean to acknowledge that screen-time—including streaming, movies, and TV—could have a supplemental role to play.)

The challenge of teaching my cross-cultural kids their heritages

As an expat living away from ‘home’ (wherever that is...) in a multicultural and multilingual environment, I often wonder how to raise our children so that they would feel a bond with my husband’s homeland(s) and mine—their heritage by blood, so to speak. And even more importantly, how to help the kids learn their family’s languages.

Small children aren’t much troubled by the mishmash, but as they get older and enter adolescence, they will start to seek answers to questions such as “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Which passport(s) they hold will be a part of that answer, but the cultural cues and languages that are there in their minds and which they can ‘speak’ with others will surely play a role in the quest for self-identity.

A common culture and language

If you’re trying to familiarize your children with your home culture, books and songs and games are musts. In addition, using TV programs and movies may help impart further imagery and cultural cues that would be a given among your child’s peers in the home country.

When our family moved to the US when I was little, my brother and I watched Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood—all those Saturday-morning children’s programs in the 1970s US. My mother claims we learned English from TV, but what these shows and movies like the first Star Wars trilogy, Superman (with Christopher Reeve), and Back to the Future actually gave me was a point of reference, a common pop imagery and language shared with my North American peers.

After a few years back in Japan, our family moved once again to the US, and it was these shared cultural understandings that helped me feel a little less like a complete outsider among the Americans (although I felt enough like a foreigner!). No, we wouldn’t be discussing these shows as teenagers, but when a joke or passing reference was made to them, I could understand it and feel ‘in’.

Ironically, my mother was averse to Japanese TV and pop culture, so even when I was growing up in Japan, I never was able to relate and keep up with my peers on those topics. This made me feel different from my classmates and less Japanese, a feeling that lasts even to this day.

Approaches to screen-time

So if we are thinking about using screen time in the context of giving more cultural and linguistic exposure to our children, what things might we keep in mind? Here are some ideas.

☑Have an idea of the purpose of screen-time

It’s useful to have some idea about what screen-time is for. Is it so the kids have some of the imagery and sounds that are part of the national heritage (i.e., Doraemon and Totoro for the Japanese, naturally!)? Or to give more exposure to a particular language? Or…?

☑Let the kids know it too

Make sure to explain it all to the kids. Even a 3-year-old can understand that they may only watch German videos because “we want you to understand German so you can talk like Papa.”

☑Pick ‘quality’ programming that fits the overall aim

If you know the aim of screen-time use, you’ll have an easier time picking the right kind of ‘quality’ programming. If it’s for exposure to pop-culture, then you might pick some popular TV shows or movies. If you want them to practice reading, maybe you will find an interactive app on the tablet or phone. Or if it’s listening skills, perhaps a podcast would be a happy intermediate to satisfy the urge to play with a gadget but without much actual staring at a screen.

Watch the shows with your children and then discuss with them afterwards

For TV shows or movies, watch them together. Afterwards (or at pauses during the show), ask them to tell you about it, start a discussion. This is great for thinking about cultural norms (pointing out what might be different from the child’s life in Thailand) and language skills—languages are not acquired passively; it’s the interaction that matters. If you’re not a speaker of that language (e.g., it’s your often-busy-at-work-spouse’s language), then try to get your spouse when he/she comes home to ask the kids the questions.

Follow the usual recommended practices for screen-time

Needless to say, the usual advice on screen-time use applies. Set a daily time limit, make rules (e.g., “you must finish your homework first”), etc.

...And a confession…

Having said all this, let me be honest. I do strive for the above, but I don’t fully follow my own advice, nor can I vouch for screen time’s contribution to my kids’ sense of belonging to the Japanese or German culture. I’ve also inherited my mother’s distrust of Japanese pop culture and so our kids hardly get any access to Japanese pop songs, video games, or manga comics (I also blame much of it on the cost involved!). And my husband’s distaste for pop culture goes even deeper than mine.

Hopefully, though, this sparks some thoughts on the role of screen-time for your own Third Culture or cross-cultural kids. In the end, we all will resort to what feels right for our own family...and hope for the best.


[This article was originally published in the BAMBI News April 2019 issue.]


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