“There’s huge potential for moral panic when new media technology emerges”

Chris Ferguson lab

Media effects researcher Christopher Ferguson says parents shouldn’t worry so much about how much time their children spend in front of a screen.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: In your newly published paper on the effects of screen time on children, you come down clearly on the side of “no harm done”. What conclusions should we draw from that?

Christopher Ferguson: There’s no evidence that kids spending time in front of a screen —whether computer, television, game console, or smart phone — has been a catastrophe for society. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which has a lot of influence on parents, has only recently softened their alarmist recommendation on limiting screen time for children. (Editor’s note: in October 2016, the AAP dropped its two-hour-a-day maximum recommended screen time for older children.) This study shows that the historic AAP emphasis on strict time limits has been misplaced.

CSG: So parents shouldn’t worry about their children being glued to the screen?

CF: The key is to balance screen use with other activities. Parents don’t need to feel terrible about their kids watching TV as long as school work, sleep, physical activity aren’t neglected. If parents are trying to focus on behavioral health, screen use has limited impact on children’s well-being.

CSG: Does it matter what children are viewing?

CF: Parents have some moral concern about content, and that’s good. This study didn’t address “good” or “bad” content, just number of hours. But from other research, we know that there is no clear evidence that content damages children. Not that a four-year-old should be watching Game of Thrones, but the causal effect is pretty weak.

“The amount of psychological research put into ads to find out how to manipulate viewers is just huge. Fictional media doesn’t do this kind of research.”

Interestingly, there is some evidence that advertising might have some effects on very young kids (under 5), influencing their eating patterns. There’s a structural difference between advertising and fictional media. The amount of psychological research put into ads to find out how to manipulate viewers is just huge. Fictional media doesn’t do this kind of research. Three- to five-year-olds haven’t developed the cognitive ability to recognize the difference between persuasive advertising and a cartoon, so they are more vulnerable to advertising influences. Later in elementary school, kids become more resistant to this kind of manipulation.

CSG: Your recent study looked at 12- to 18-year-olds and indicated no correlation between screen time up to six hours daily and risky behavior outcomes. Do these findings extend to younger groups?

CF: Well, some outcomes (such as risky driving, risky sex, substance abuse) obviously don’t apply to younger children. There’s already been a fair amount of research on screen use among younger kids, looking at cognition in general and language acquisition. What both groups definitely have in common is that screen abstinence makes no sense and there is no evidence whatsoever to support it.

CSG: Can you say that a three-year-old’s media consumption has no influence on his or her behavior as a ten-year-old?

CF: There’s little evidence to say that screens have pervasive, long-term influence on children’s behavior. If we’re looking at long-term influences, parents have far more dramatic influence than do screens. Again, the key really is in maintaining screens in a good balance with other activities. Difficulties with that balance may sometimes be indicative of other, larger problems for the child or within the family.

“The key really is in maintaining screens in a good balance with other activities. Difficulties with that balance may sometimes be indicative of other, larger problems for the child or within the family.”

CSG: Are there any long-term studies that look at children’s media consumption?

CF: There are no studies that follow from birth to age 18. If we really want to learn more about the effects of children’s media use over time, we’d need to do some longitudinal studies and pay people over the years, since we’d ask for a lot of data. In the ideal study we’d include as much biological data as possible, look at genetic factors, the family environment, and personality development.

CSG: Did your study make a distinction between accompanied screen time and unaccompanied screen time? We know that research indicates that parental interaction is important with younger children, but what about adolescents?

CF: The current study only examined overall screen time, not necessarily co-viewing with parents. Undoubtedly, media use with parents is an excellent opportunity for family socialization. In many cases media, even “edgy” media, can be a good opportunity for parents and children to watch something together and talk about it.

Using screens with a child is a cool thing. Parents need to think about how to enrich screen time: use interactive games and apps, talk with our kids about what we see.

CSG: What happens at six hours daily and more screen time?

CF: Not a lot. There are some tiny correlations with three of the seven behaviors the study looked at (delinquency, grades, depression), but no association for the other four (risky driving, illegal substance use, risky sexual behaviors, disordered eating). And it’s unclear whether the correlations that are there have any practical value.

“Using screens with a child is a cool thing. Parents need to think about how to enrich screen time: use interactive games and apps, talk with our kids about what we see.”

CSG: What kind of reactions have you received since your study came out?

CF: I had anticipated more conflict, but the AAP policy change took the wind out of my sails. In dropping their “two-hour maximum” recommendation, they suddenly became sensible. The AAP was not getting a lot of positive feedback about their strict recommendation and their position was becoming untenable.

All these organizations are political and blow with the political winds: they are not arbiters of truth, but exist to gain influence for their professions. So, it’s hard to predict whether the alarmists will pipe up again.

CSG: What might be cause for alarm?

CF: Look, today’s 40-somethings grew up with video games, with Arnold Schwarzenegger action films, R-rated movies. So, for Generation X, these things are not a big deal. But it’s hard to fathom the potential for moral panic when new media technology emerges. I’ll be curious to see if the Gen-Xers or millennials are more resistant to panic when virtual reality becomes part of daily life.

Christopher J. Ferguson is professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He has conducted numerous research studies on media effects including violent video games and other media violence, thin-ideal media and body dissatisfaction, and “sexy media” effects on sexual behavior. Ferguson is a frequently-cited expert on violent crime and media consumption. In his new book Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong, he and co-author Patrick M. Markey offer a comprehensive overview of the scientific research in gaming.