The swinging pendulum of the screen-time debate
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
It’s a simple law of physics, that a pendulum swinging one way has to eventually come swinging right back the other way. So is the case with the debate over screen-time, gaming, smart-phones and other forms and uses of technology.
So far we have heard plenty about why it is bad for children (and adults), and recently the WHO announced that “gaming disorder” will officially be added to it’s list of diseases. As predicted, we are now swinging back the other way, with some experts coming forward to criticize this move, saying that there isn’t enough evidence available (yet) to make such sweeping global decisions.
It is unfortunate but true that we don’t (yet) have enough research that has been carried out on a large enough sample of people for a long enough period of time that could conclusively and irrefutably state that a specific type of technology for a specific amount of time has a specific and negative effect that impacts specific human psycho-emotional and physical functions. In reality, we have very little research available to us that embodies that level of robustness, regarding any major human problem and from any scientific field. When it comes to tech-use, there is no doubt that it would be incredibly useful for us to have that kind of research, but given how little time we have had with our smartphones and how quickly we have become intimate with them, we may need to wait a while longer. The take-up of new technologies has sped up so aggressively (it has taken less than 7 years for both the mobile phone and the internet to be accepted by 25% of the American population), that science is just trying to keep up.
Yes- large overarching policies do require solid evidence before they are put in place by global and/or governmental entities. When it comes to recommendations we can make on a smaller scale though, to teachers, parents and even schools, I don’t believe we need to wait for such large-scale research. We already have enough anecdotal reports suggesting that mindless, excessive and passive use of technology is simply not good for anyone. “I so wish my child spent more time on their smartphone and their social media.” Said no parent ever. I’m not even sure many children would either.
A recent article published by The Guardian has shared the perspectives of a number of experts who question the claims of harmful effects caused by screen-time, tech-use, gaming and related tech-based activities. It was a thought-provoking piece for me and so I wanted to address some of the statements made in it, because I find them to be problematic and not reflective of the whole story.
First though, it would be useful to define the terminology around tech-use, since it can at times become confusing.
Technology use: simple enough, suggests the use of any kind of technological hardware or software (and, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with that).
Passive technology use: activities in which there is little or no interaction with that technology, such as watching videos or scrolling through online content (without interacting with it). Research by Common Sense Media has shown that out of every hour that a teen spends on a device, a little over a third of that time is spent passively. Now, this is not entirely bad because a very positive activity, listening to music, also belongs in this ‘passive’ category.
Device: any of the devices used today, and these are TVs, desktop computers, gaming consoles, laptops, smartphones, tablets and wearables such as smart-watches.
Screen-time: refers to time spent using a screen-based device, and these most often are smartphones, TVs and tablets. Computers and consoles are part of the mix as well, especially once we enter gaming territory.
Content: pretty much anything that is housed within our devices that we consume; it can be music, videos, articles, photos etc.
Gaming: the definition is expanding given that there are some gender differences within the field. It refers to playing games on a console, computer and/or smartphone. Research done by NewZoo suggests that 48% of female gamers favor puzzle games on mobile, while 41% of male gamers prefer shooter games on the PC.
Social Media: platforms of various complexities that connect people through an exchange of videos, comments, text messages, and photos. Some of the most popular ones today (according to the Pew Research Center) are YouTube and Facebook, followed by Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter and WhatsAp (in order of popularity).
The following are the statements I have pulled from the Guardian article, and I believe they need to be supplemented with more information in order to reflect the true complexity of the issue:
“There is no strong evidence to support fears that screen time is inherently bad for children, experts have warned, adding that the recognition of so-called gaming disorder by the World Health Organisation is premature.”
Gambling in itself is not necessarily a bad thing (moral opinions and financial issues aside), but there is a line beyond which the behavior crosses over into the category of addiction and disorder. This is true for many addictions. In the same way, gaming itself (as well as screen time in itself) is not necessarily a bad thing, but there certainly are known cases in which children seriously suffer because they can’t pull themselves away from it.
“And 99% of a child’s wellbeing has nothing measurable to do with screens, no matter how you measure them.”
Given that teens spend about 9 hours a day on entertainment media use and tweens spend about 6 (over and above the schoolwork-related use), it seems highly unlikely that 99% of a child’s wellbeing will have "nothing measurable to do with screens," the screens that they spend almost half of their waking hours on. The 0-8 age group was spending almost 50min a day on mobile devices last year in the US. If we are being literal, the screens themselves are not harmful (although even that is not 100% true because their use should be zero: 1. before the age of about 2 due to eye/vision development and 2. before bedtime due to blue light emission), but we all know that the issue here is not the screens but what is on them.
“The best evidence we currently have suggests that some screen time, some video game playing per day, is better than none at all, particularly for childhood wellbeing”
While the experts interviewed in the article seem to hold the position that screen time is not necessarily inherently bad, this statement seems to suggest that there is definitely something inherently good about it, since “some is better than none at all.” This statement requires a lot of clarification; first, we need to distinguish between different age groups, and then define the alleged benefits that screen time can provide each of them with. And perhaps most importantly, we need to define “childhood wellbeing.” Surely, some screen time won’t be better than none if it involves a 2 year old watching Peppa Pig unsupervised on auto-play on YouTube (not least because a pornographic version of Peppa is likely to pop up 5 videos in)? Children bellow a certain age will not attain any benefit from interacting with technology over and above that which interacting with another live human being can provide them. This is true when it comes to language acquisition, emotional regulation, eye-hand coordination, and others. We (and by “we” I mean our brains) are built to grow and develop by co-regulating with other humans. Our psycho-emotional infrastructure cannot develop otherwise. For this reason, “childhood wellbeing” up until a certain age is defined by how full a child’s tummy is, how safe they are physically, how responsive their caregivers are and how joyful they are on a daily basis. Technology then gets added in to the mix not because not doing it will harm a child, but because doing it has the potential to enhance the acquisition of knowledge. That is the primary reason for introducing technology to children- as an add-on that enhances learning.
“Whatever we say about the evidence around screen time we have to have boundaries about when it is appropriate to use it and when you have to do other stuff, particular when children are growing up, but that is basic parenting stuff, that isn’t anything new.”
To a certain extent, yes, parents set the rules and boundaries for their children. But they depend on doctors, scientists, psychologists and others to do their jobs and inform parents of what is healthy and what isn’t, what is recommended and what isn’t, so that they can make an informed decision. In today’s world, I am not sure that we have given parents enough clear information in order for them to do that. Part of our job is to help them to their job. It takes a village, they say.
“Przybylski cautioned that heavy-handed interventions on screen time could also bring other problems, noting that the UN Convention on Child Rights, states that children have a right to information. “If we are worried about the internet or technology or screens and we are taking it away, there is an argument to be made that we are violating their human rights,” he said.” A strong statement, indeed. I don’t think anyone is proposing removing technology altogether from children (I certainly hope not). Our whole world has evolved to function upon a technological infrastructure, so that would be a ludicrous idea. And so, implicating a violation of children’s human rights in this conversation is a bit of an over-dramatization. Separating children from their parents is a violation of their human rights; helping them manage tech-use that can otherwise escalate and potentially become harmful is a protection of the same. Children deserve to thrive, and learn, and be creative, and laugh, and be hugged, and run around, and feel the thrill of loving others and being loved themselves, and if technology has the potential to get in the way of any of that, then it is our DUTY to do whatever we can to protect them.
I have to say, with a great deal of sadness, that we seem to have forgotten the fact that WE ARE ENOUGH for each other. Can we take a moment to absorb that? We are ENOUGH.
I believe that most of you reading this will intuitively understand what I mean by that, but to elaborate for the rest: what I mean is that I can be born into this world and grow up to be a good actor or brain surgeon, a good daughter, friend, mother, a person who is good at sharing, or listening to others, or appreciating art, or any number of other human traits, WITHOUT having a Facebook or Instagram account or ever having seen a YouTube video. I don’t NEED technology for that. I need other humans.
Technology operates on a couple of different levels. On one level it can help me get around more easily, it can help me save time on ordering groceries and it can make it easier for me to stay in touch with friends who are very far way. As a third culture kid, I especially appreciate that connecting part, although there are other ways of connecting beside a social media platform - one of my old high school friends just discovered a letter I had written to her when we were 14, which got me thinking how nice it would be to try writing one of those again! Otherwise, this 'level' of technology mostly just makes life 'easier' (or is it just that it makes it faster...?). There is then the other level, the one that helps surgeons hone in their fine-motor skills, teaches children how to build robots and print 3D objects, helps doctors heal patients in remote parts of the world and helps us (one day) build more eco-friendly cities. THAT kind of technology is the truly valuable kind that can provide us with beautiful, powerful and unimaginable benefits, and we should be proud for having created it. That is the kind of technology we should expose our children too - it will help them create a better today and a better tomorrow.
Let us work on being more mindful of the KIND of technology we use (and allow children to use), and more aware of the KIND of benefits it truly has.