Screen time for children

Searching for evidence
'Nobody likes me', artwork by Banksy
'Nobody likes me', artwork by Banksy

Parents and teachers alike are bombarded with news articles lambasting children’s use of screens. The supposed negative influences of screen time range from cancer to screen addiction to shortened attention spans. Much of this concern is based on assumptions about screen use, rather than evidence.

It seems that every day brings a new scare-story when it comes to screen use, and the stories are all the more frightening when children are the users. Screens are sometimes portrayed as inherently bad, with increased use associated with greater ill-effects. Thankfully there are researchers fighting the corner of science, arguing that we simply lack the evidence for many of these claims.

Psychological researcher Amy Orben explains that there are very few studies around the issue of screen time, and those that do exist are not of the quality required to answer the kinds of questions we are interested in. Often the studies that we read about in the news are based on correlational data: for example, that increased screen use is linked to increased depression in teenagers. This association may be true, but the mechanism behind the link is not yet known. Simply put, though depressed teenagers may spend more time in front of screens, we cannot say that it is the screen time that has caused their depression.

Assumptions about what screen time is used for and what it is replacing may be stoking our fears

When we think of screen time, we might imagine scrolling mindlessly through social media, looking at pictures of cats, and playing addictive games. But parents and teachers will be aware that screen time can also be educational, and may help children to develop skills and knowledge.

This is especially true given the sophistication of some educational apps, which can be adaptive, changing according to the level of each individual child. Particularly for very young children, engaging with an app may help develop skills (for example, motor skills). Screen time may also enable older children to foster friendships and develop social skills.

There is also the assumption that children (and other screen users) are sitting in front of a screen when they would otherwise be engaged in a more enriching or active pursuit. In reality, children might be using screens while travelling in the car or on the bus for example, where other stimulating activities are more difficult.

“Screens may offer opportunities for learning and development, exposing children to new concepts.”

Reported links between screen use and lack of physical exercise does not necessarily mean that children are using screens instead of being active. The link may reflect individual differences in enjoyment of exercise; if you are someone who does not enjoy exercise, you would perhaps spend your time sitting regardless of screen technology. We currently do not know the direction of causation, and in reality it’s likely that there are many factors at play, each influencing each other in complicated ways.

Conversations about screen time, Amy Orben argues, sometimes oversimplify what screen time really means. Most of us would agree that some forms of screen time offer no particular benefits. But screens may offer opportunities for learning and development, exposing children to new concepts, perhaps requiring new skills, and providing a fun learning environment in locations that might otherwise lack stimulation.

“There is no evidence that screens are inherently bad, and that much of the fear comes not from science but from assumptions and scaremongering.”

Over and again, the dialogue on screen time seems to disregard the inherent complexities that exist in attempting to establish an evidence base in a new area of research. A lack of evidence does not mean that we should allow children to use screens all day, but it does mean that current guidelines on daily or weekly use are rather arbitrary.

Yes, we should consider the real concerns that are linked to screen time, for instance cyberbullying and other types of cyber-harassment. But we should also be aware that there is no evidence that screens are inherently bad, and that much of the fear comes not from science but from assumptions and scaremongering.

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