Screens are creating bigger issues in our homes than almost anything else. They interrupt routines and distract us and our children from other priorities. There is a moral panic around the dangers of screens to health, wellbeing, schooling, work, sex, and relationships.
If we’re honest, it’s often us – the grown-ups – who are the worst offenders, but our children are the hardest hit. Their developing physiology (body), neurology (brain), and psychology are most at risk of being negatively affected by over-exposure to screens.
Let’s examine what science has shown us*:
Screens and socio-emotional development
A November 2017 study published in Clinical Pediatrics with just over 200 children aged 1 – 3 years examined how often children were given screens during ten daytime activities: when they woke up, toileted, got dressed, ate breakfast, ate lunch, played, went down for a nap, had a bath, or went to sleep at night. Children at risk of socio-emotional delay (which means that their social skills and emotional regulation are delayed and impaired were 5.8 times more likely to be in front of screens for 5 of these activities each day.
For children under age 2, exposure to television and other screen time is generally associated with cognitive delay. Language comprehension and production is lower as screen exposure increases, probably because children aren’t engaging with their parents in conversation (and baby babbling talk). They play with toys less, and tend to be less creative and exploratory. The evidence is less clear for toddlers and pre-schoolers. Educational programming (like Sesame Street) has been shown to have a positive impact on learning, but as children get older they tend to prefer entertainment over education, and this is related to poorer cognitive development. Research also highlights that the more parents view screens, the less they interact with their children. This also reduces children’s cognitive development.
Media multi-tasking for children looks like this: while doing homework they are responding to text messages, checking social media, and listening to music (or streaming a movie). A growing body of evidence suggests that as children get older, they use screens to multi-task at least 30% of the time they are on screens.
The studies show memory is poorer, impulsivity is higher (which means behavioural control is lower), the brain’s density is lower (suggesting the brain doesn’t develop and intelligence is lower), and academic outcomes are poorer when screens are used for multi-tasking. Studies show that performance is poorer for multi-taskers, even when they are only performing a single task. Even wellbeing suffers because of multi-tasking! Depression and social anxiety increase in these situations.
Screens and physical health
Evidence shows that time on screens impacts physical health. Screen time is typically a time that we are physically inactive. Appetite is affected when we spend time in front of screens, as is eyesight and posture. Screens affect sleep quantity and quality, affecting immune function, mental function, vitality and energy, and overall physical wellbeing. Some studies point to screens as predictors of adolescent alcohol and other drug use too.
Screens and mental heath
The mental health ramifications of time in front of screens are increasingly well-documented. Internalising disorders such as depression, anxiety, stress, and attention problems increase with heavy media and screen use. Some studies point to screens reducing empathy and increasing narcissism in both youth and adults. Other risks include self-esteem issues and body image concerns. These issues are exacerbated on social media where there are also risks associated with cyber-bullying, exposure to explicit and harmful content, and impulse-control issues. More and more studies are indicating that increased time on screens corresponds to increases in mental health challenges.
Screens and violence
The vast majority of laboratory-based scientific studies (that is, not the real world) have found that violent media exposure causes aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiological arousal. Heart rate increases, our bodies sweat, blood pressure rises. Our brain works differently too.
We start to see situations as potentially hostile and respond accordingly. Our empathy drops and we are less compassionate. Aggression increases. The studies also show we become desensitised to violence the more we see of it. The evidence shows that there are both short-term and longer-term effects, and that while it is true that violent people may seek violent content, there are compelling reasons to believe that violence on screens creates violence in people, particularly children.
Screens and sex
The availability of sexual content on screens today is extraordinary, and affects our children in harmful ways. Online portrayal of sexual content (compared to television media and print media/magazine) has been shown to relate to problematic beliefs and behaviours in our young people (and even some adults). Most portrayals of sexual content are “consequence free” with no mention of diseases or pregnancy, and no use of condoms. The Internet (compared to traditional media) has facilitated unprecedented access to content that can be accessed anywhere, is interactive (so it is more engaging, there is more time spent viewing, and more learning), is anonymous, and is more violent and extreme than other forms of media. An examination of 15 to 18 year olds found 54% of boys and 17% of girls admitted to intentionally viewing. This content has been found to increase anxiety, reduce wellbeing, and cause physical harm. And both violent and sexual content are related to poor academic outcomes for kids.
Screens and life
If that list doesn’t scare you into believing that screens are the enemy, think about the general impact that they have on your life, or that of your children. They interrupt communication. They interrupt dinner. They interrupt our capacity to walk from one room to another without tripping over something because our eyes are being pierced by pixels emanating from the screen. They impact motivation, productivity, personal hygiene, and our general ability to focus, regulate emotions, behaviour, and attention, effectively remember things, and simply function.
Screens and design
Let’s be sure that we understand one thing very, very clearly. Our screen-based devices (phones, tablets, computers, tv’s) and the platforms we use on our screens (social media – including Facebook, YouTube, etc – games, and streaming platforms like Netflix) are intentionally designed with one central purpose: to gain our attention.
Our devices, when in our hands, feel luxurious. They reduce our anxiety, almost as though the svelte feel, rounded edges, and cool aluminium and glass bring us comfort. We almost want to keep holding them. And the platforms are intentionally designed to keep our gaze glued to the timeline, feed, or “up next” options for as long as possible. Make no mistake, there are thousands of engineers whose only job is to find ways to make you interact with their device or platform longer. Oh, and every time you click, you give them more information about what will keep you there. Screens are ubiquitous. And they are almost inescapable. Should we even try to escape?
We have a problem
Despite all of this, it is undeniable that screens are adding value to our lives. We have access to unprecedented information. Technology is making life better, safer and healthier in countless ways. We are potentially more connected than ever before – and that can often be a positive: think of relatives who are geographically distant but can Skype into the family room and talk face to face with loved ones. Throwing out technology is not only foolish; it’s probably impossible. So how do we make our peace with something so potentially harmful? Is there a way to get the balance right?
A Family Media Plan
Creating a family media/screen plan is a useful solution. The following questions can guide your conversation:
- What are the most positive screen and media experiences we have as a family? How can we encourage more of these experiences?
- When is it appropriate to use screens?
- When is it inappropriate for screens to be used?
- How much screen time is appropriate? For children? Adults? (And how will we encourage compliance?)
- What exceptions might be appropriate to this plan?
A plan won’t solve all problems. But when we start early with our kids, explain things clearly, plan our strategy, and then implement it with care, compassion, and consistency, we are more likely to protect our children from the various – and significant – challenges and risks associated with too much screen and media use. * Several of the central topics of this article are based on the Pediatrics supplement on media and children in the November Pediatrics journal. Links to relevant articles throughout.
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