Although its roots go back into the previous century, the smartphone has only been a part of society for less than two decades. Tablets for about half that time.
For an only slightly shorter period of time, we’ve also had researchers and others warning us that the devices are harmful. The signals cause cancer. The screens are ruining our eyesight. They’re distracting.
Over the past few years, we’ve also had many studies, books, and articles related to the effects of screen use on kids. Like the high profile 2017 piece in The Atlantic (adapted from the author’s book) that asks if smartphones have “destroyed a generation”. Or a seemingly endless stream around the theme that screens are making kids stupid.
On the other side of the issue, some new research, reported in the New York Times, indicates that “common wisdom” about evil screens and kids is likely wrong.
The latest research, published on Friday by two psychology professors, combs through about 40 studies that have examined the link between social media use and both depression and anxiety among adolescents. That link, according to the professors, is small and inconsistent.
“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
The professors (and most of us who fall on the don’t panic side of things) are “not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter”.
Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.
They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.
The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.
As with so many of the societal problems we face in working with children, it’s easier to blame the technology than to have those more productive conversations. Restrict the amount of time kids spend with devices rather than address the underlying issues they may have.
Parents cannot blame the smartphone for problems they see in their children if they are not involved enough to find out what they are doing on those screens. Teachers can’t claim that the digital world has “stunted” the mental growth of students if they don’t understand why and how they live in that world.
I doubt one article like this, even in a high-profile publication like the New York Times, will dissuade adults from accepting the “common wisdom” that screen time is by default bad.
But maybe if we were a little more reflective on our own use of devices, we might get a better understanding of what our kids are doing.