Too much screen time is harmful for children.
Many teachers, parents, and others who work with kids have accepted this as the gospel truth. But where is the evidence of this “truth”?
Two UK researchers who have done a deep dive into the subject say it doesn’t exist.
If you had attended the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ international congress in London last week you could have been forgiven for coming away with the following thoughts. Addiction to Fortnite, the online game, is a real disorder; social media is depleting “our neurotransmitter deposits”; and “excess screen time has reduced our attention span to eight seconds, one less than that of a goldfish”.
Scary stuff! Only problem is, none of these claims is supported by facts or a drop of scientific evidence.
Some of those “reports” from the congress will wind up in news headlines and two-minute video segments, presented by commentators who “don’t know – or don’t care – that they are cherry-picking from an evidence base riddled with errors”. It sounds logical – and not a little scary – that screens are causing our kids to under-perform goldfish.
The research from the writers “focused on a sample of more than 10,000 preteens and teens, analysing1 nearly a decade of longitudinal data collected from British adolescents”.
And what did they find?
Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise. In the remainder, we did find some small trends over time – these were mostly clustered in data provided by teenage girls. Decreases in satisfaction with school, family, appearance and friends presaged increased social media use, andincreases in social media use preceded decreases in satisfaction with school, family, and friends. You can see then how, if you were determined to extract a story, you could cook up one about teenage girls and unhappiness.
But instead of seeing these results as disappointing – as they might be in a journalistic story sense – in science the lack of an expected finding is inherently valuable, making us reconsider, challenge and update our notion of how social media is affecting us.
By referring you to this article (and, in a post from last April, to a book whose author also makes the point that screen time is a poor indicator or child wellbeing) I’m not advocating for unlimited device use for anyone, much less kids.
As the authors note, there are “many good reasons to be sceptical1 of the role of Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok in our society”. But the more important factor when it comes to the wellbeing of children is the quality of the time they spend with these and other online activities. And that’s where parents and teachers come in.
Don’t just count the number of minutes kids interacting with a screen. Look at what they are actually doing with those devices.
At the same time, you may want to reflect on whether the stuff you’re doing on that smartphone is a good use of your time.
The picture, one of my favorites, is from our trip to Cuba in 2016. Even in a country that severely restricts internet access, kids and adults still spend a lot of time on their screens.
1. Those are not typos, only British spellings of the word. You know, the original English language. :-)