By Dr. Eugene Brink
Kids nowadays grow up with all manner of technology that weren’t even imagined only 20 years ago.
Devices such as iPads have certainly brought a range of benefits to our lives and it is futile to completely resist it. The perceived downside is that they, like contemporary adults, are often glued to screens. But what exactly does screen time do to kids? These are some of the questions with ambiguous and controversial answers, but they inevitably raise issues that our generation (as well as coming ones) will have to wrestle with.
What exactly is screen time?
First off, we need to know what a phenomenon entails lest we work with preconceived notions which might not be correct or complete. Raisingchildren.net, an Australian parenting website, defines screen time as being:
- Interactive – for example, playing video games, communicating via Skype, or using online tools to draw pictures.
- Not interactive – for example, sitting still and watching movies, TV programs or YouTube videos.
- Educational – for example, doing maths homework online.
- Recreational – for example, playing games or watching videos for fun.
Good and bad
Now that we know what screen time encompasses, let’s look at the benefits and risks associated with it. First off, and quite surprisingly, it’s not so much the length of screen time that matters, but its nature.
“It’s not just about whether you consume any potential digital junk foods, but also your relationship to technology and the role it plays in your family life,” says Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the concept of “digital nutrition”. “We know that using screens to soothe or pacify kids sets up some concerning patterns of relying on devices to calm or distract a child (or teen, or adult) from their experience of unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions – so we want to avoid using screens to placate tantrums, just like we want to avoid eating ‘treats’ to calm emotional storms.”
She says it is important for young children that parents and kids are playing, watching and browsing together. Dr Andrew Pryzbylski, lead author of a study of 20,000 parents published in late 2017 by the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University, said their findings suggest that the broader family context, and parents actively engaged in exploring the digital world with their children, are more important than the raw screen time.
A study by the University of Michigan on children aged four to 11 also found it is more important that the “how”, and not really the “how much”, is addressed as it pertains to devices with screens and social and emotional problems associated with screen time. This study did, however, caution that concern over a child’s screen use is warranted if it leads to poor behaviour and withdrawal from other activities.
Besides being a shared experience between parent and child, screen time is beneficial in several ways. Children are exposed to good quality content on screens, such as playing video games that involves solving puzzles. At the same time, these games can teach them new analytical and problem-solving skills.
But it would be remiss to ignore the many potential dangers. A recent study of 4500 US children, published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal, has linked limiting children’s recreational screen use with improved cognition. Children aged 8 to 11 who used screens for fun less than two hours per day performed better in mental ability tests. According to Raisingchildren.au, intemperate amounts of screen time could also hamper a child’s language development and social skills as children need real-life interactions to properly develop these skills.
Moreover, as far as physical risks are concerned, looking excessively at a screen can create sore eyes, headaches and fatigue. Looking down at a screen may also have an adverse effect on a child’s spine and neck.
Thus, screen time – despite its all-round bad rap – has certainly yielded some benefits for kids. However, it is still up to parents and adults to ensure that the right context is created so that benefits do not turn into risks.
Alex Therrien, 27 September 2018, “Limiting children’s screen time linked to better cognition”, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-45651725.
Keza MacDonald, 31 May 2018, “How much screen time is too much for kids? It’s complicated”, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/31/how-much-screen-time-is-too-much-for-kids-parents-advice-children-digital-media.
Raisingchildren.net.au, 2018, “Screen time”, https://raisingchildren.net.au/school-age/play-media-technology/screen-time-healthy-screen-use/screen-time.