Two-thirds of parents say parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, with many suggesting that technologies – like social media or smartphones – are the reason. The truth is, one of the most regularly discussed – and argued over – topics among parents is screen time. How much is too much? How do screens impact children’s development? Their wellbeing? Their life?
Just as screen time conversations reached fever pitch, along came COVID-19 - and it forced some massive changes regarding how we use screens with our families, and how we think about the topic of kids and screens.
Tweens, Teens, Screens, and the Pandemic
The COVID pandemic has transformed so much of our lives. Families have been affected. Children have been impacted. And the ramifications are likely to be long lasting. It shut down schools, businesses and workplaces and forced millions to stay at home for extended lengths of time. Public health authorities recommended limits on social contact to try to contain the spread of the virus, and these restrictions profoundly altered the way many worked, learned, connected with loved ones, carried out basic daily tasks, celebrated and mourned.
One of the most powerful impacts of these transformations was in the way that our children and teens use screens. According to a Deakin University study , during last year's COVID lockdown children in Victoria spent almost 27 more hours each week on their screens compared to pre-pandemic levels ! That’s more than one full day extra on their smartphones, digital tablets, computers and television, and the greatest changes were among children aged between five and 12 years old.
It wasn’t just the kids either. Findings from the Our Life at Home s tudy (Deakin Uni) found that parents spent an extra 14 and a half hours on their screens each week, compared to pre-lockdown. Yikes! We’re all hitting our screens hard. That’s a lot of blue light!
DR JUSTIN COULSON & JOCELYN BREWER
Screens, Social Media, and Your Daughter
While we are pointing fingers at everyone for being on their screens “too much”, let’s remember, it’s not just Australia. In this cross-sectional study from the USA, 5412 adolescents were found to use their screens, on average, 7.70 hours each day. Pre-pandemic, the average teen screen time was estimated at 3.8 hours per day from the same cohort. And even though quarantine and lockdown restrictions are dropping, studies have suggested that screen use hasn’t dropped off.
Is this a problem? Should we be concerned? Does something need to be done?
Yes… I mean, No! Wait. I don’t know
As someone who has literally spent countless hours reviewing research articles from the most highly acclaimed researchers in the field, I have to tell you that the screen time questions parents ask are challenging to answer definitively.
We need more research.
Rather than bore you with a 1000 word article about research methods and the gaping holes in our current understanding of the question and its answers, let me summarise (in a gross oversimplification).
Essentially, Jean Twenge makes the alarming claim that “ smartphones have destroyed a generation ”. Those who agree with her research findings (and there are many) tell us that evidence has suggested this as an issue since around 2012, which was the tipping point where most adolescents had a mobile device. Her evidence is compelling. Her narrative is intuitive. And her research has been effective in influencing some of the smartest thinkers in the psychological sciences - and most of the world’s parents who feel that it harmonises with their experience.
In contrast, Andy Przybylski (who holds the prestigious role of director of the Oxford Internet Institute at… Oxford) has done sophisticated research with his colleagues and found “ eating potatoes ” has nearly as negative an effect on the wellbeing of young people as do screens, and also that wearing glasses has a more negative effect on adolescent mental health than screen use. To be precise: 0.4% of the variance in wellbeing outcomes for our teens is related to their use of technology. As such, those who are in the Pyzybylski camp tend to downplay the risk of screen use.
Przybylski is no slouch. He is a highly regarded researcher who generally follows best practice in terms of research methodology, pre-registering his studies, and opening his data so people can ensure its accuracy and replicability. And his studies are provoking heavy rethinking around screens and wellbeing for their excellent design and surprising results.
The summary: on the one hand, some researchers say that teens’ lives will be destroyed if they have a smartphone. On the other hand, other researchers are suggesting that how many potatoes our kids eat matters more for their wellbeing than how much screen time they have.
Screen Time is a Meaningless Idea
Most recently, the smart research ( this time by Twenge and her colleagues ) has shown that they might both be right. But it all depends on how we define screen time. Essentially, the term is broad and nebulous, and when used to talk about screens generally, Przybylski is right. Screens aren’t really that big of a problem.
But… and it’s a big but… when we look only at social media data, we get a hugely different picture. In a new paper , the link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the famous Przybylski paper identified for “screen time.” And a recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link in relation to social media use. Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last year, also showed that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.
For girls in particular, we see a larger relationship between mental health and social media use than that between mental health and binge drinking, early sexual activity, hard drug use, being suspended from school, marijuana use, lack of exercise, being stopped by police, and carrying a weapon. The short version: we’re getting closer to agreement, and while screens may or may not be small fries, social media is big potatoes!
Being Right vs Being Useful
People can get pretty caught up in who is right and who is wrong. These are matters of importance. They affect us all. We want to make the ‘right’ decision. And the data are beginning to give us some sense of direction here. Our real life experience is supporting what the data points to.
But sometimes being useful is more important than being right. Let me explain:
Anyone who tries to tell you that they know whether screens are good or bad is not relying on the evidence. They’re relying on their biases, their prejudices, and even their politics. Perhaps this is less of a point of contention with social media, but the idea still fits at this early stage.
Simple. The evidence is still under dispute. The world’s best minds are arguing about it. They’re collecting data, pointing out limitations in their research (and in the research of their colleagues), and trying to help us find what is right. But the truth is… we have no idea! Every high quality, pre-registered, sophisticated study gets us closer. But we just don’t really know. Anyone who gives you their expert knowledge but doesn’t acknowledge this is lacking expertise.
And with the pandemic’s impact on our lives, we have even less of an idea about what we are supposed to be doing now that screen usage has increased so much.
But it’s not just that more screen usage is happening. It’s that the kind of screen usage has changed. Kids are connecting more online because it’s been the only viable option for them in so many cases. They’re creating and learning more because schooling has moved online, and because social media and gaming platforms have become more compelling. (And they’re probably consuming passively more than they used to as well because… Netflix.)
Does this mean we should throw up our hands and give it up?
Let’s stop focusing on having the right answers (because for now they don’t exist). Let’s instead focus on useful ways forward.
Here’s what I suggest:
First, let’s understand the problem (including the reason so many parents are worried).
Second, let’s consider a rational and calm approach that minimises downside and maximises upside.
Third, let’s figure out the best way to communicate all of this within our homes and families so that the screen time wars will stop.
DR JUSTIN COULSON & JOCELYN BREWER
Screens, Social Media, and Your Daughter
1. Understand the problem
The problem is that there is more than one problem!
We’ve already discussed problem number one, which is the lack of clear data on how screens and social media in particular do or do not impact wellbeing.
Problem number two is that there are a lot of voices telling us to be afraid (very afraid), based on biased reading (or limited reading) of the research evidence.
But problem number three is where I want to focus:
As parents, we see what happens when our children end up with screens in their hands. Here’s a shortlist:
- They stop listening
- They stop doing chores or contributing in the home
- They stop being physically active
- They stop doing school work
- They stop reading
- They stop communicating
- They stop eating
- They stop sleeping
- They stop spending time with people who matter (friends and family)
And many parents report that when our children end up with screens in their hands:
- They start fighting with each other
- They start back chatting their parents
- They start integrating what they see on screens into their lives, and it’s often unsavoury
- They start finding every opportunity to be on a screen at the expense of their previous interests
- They start lying
Problem number three, therefore, is that regardless of what the data says, parents and families are experiencing challenges. Screens are associated with, if not causing, a host of difficulties between parents and their kids, and social media might be causing specific problems for our kids.
2. Take a Rational, Calm Approach
If the focus of this article is to be useful, let’s reflect on what a rational, calm approach to the issue might be.
Everything in moderation
First, a careful and considered review of the data in numerous studies shows that some screen usage is associated with modest improvements in mental health and wellbeing. But it also highlights that increased time on screen is associated with modest decreases in wellbeing. Everything in moderation, perhaps?
Not all screen time is created equal
Second, evidence points out that not all screen time is the same . And that the relationship between screen time and mental health matters. Adolescents with poorer mental health are also on screens more ( or perhaps it might be adolescents who are on screens more have poorer mental health ). Obviously the new data from Twenge and from the Spanish researchers adds weight to this issue, particularly regarding social media.
Do all of the do’s
Third, a mountain of research tells us what a child or adolescent needs in order to live a happy, fulfilling life. That includes great relationships, a good level of physical activity, the opportunity to learn and develop, some hobbies and interests, nutritious food, and high quality sleep.
Watch out for for the risks
Fourth, screen use and social media can present risks. Bullying, and coarse, vulgar, or explicit content are the two biggest concerns for most parents. Sharing or receiving nudes, identity theft, or grooming are also risks facing too many of our children. Parents must address these issues with their children to help them to be safe.
None of this is controversial. None of this is provocative. And all of this points to us moving away from the screen-time wars and moving towards healthy conversations about living a whole and balanced life where screens are used wisely and safely.
A rational, calm approach means that we:
- Find ways to use screens in positive ways for connection, creation, and consumption
- Balance screen use with other wholesome activities
- Minimise risks associated with screen use
It sounds so simple, right?
3. Communicate with your family about their screen use
A word on “taking control”
I regularly hear parents argue that they’re the ones who ought to be in control. They emphasise that “it’s my house, it’s my rules”, and the kids need to understand that “it’s my way or the highway”. These parents are the ones who will argue that you need to take the kid’s phones each night, and that you need to control the wifi. They’re the ones who say their kids will never have a phone in their bedroom, and that games are banned. And they’re usually big on filters and passwords.
My response: you can fence the pool, but you can’t fence the ocean. That is, you can keep your kids safe at home, but you can’t keep them safe everywhere. Of course, fencing the pool is essential. It matters. But we have to teach our kids to swim. That keeps them safe when they’re not at home.
If your children want to be on a screen, they’ll find a way. When I interviewed around 400 Aussie teen girls for my book, Miss-Connection , they told me all their secrets for getting around controlling parents:
- I lie about when I turn my laptop and phone off at night
- I tell them I’m doing schoolwork on my laptop when I’m actually watching YouTube, scrolling through PetRescue, or just looking at other interesting pieces of information that I find on the Internet
- My friends create an account for their parents to follow and then create accounts that their parents don’t know about
- Block them
- Hidden comments
- I sneak into my parents’ room after they are asleep to get my device
- My friend has to take her phone and laptop upstairs every night. Sometimes she just takes the phone case and her parents don’t look so hard so they don’t see that the phone isn’t there
- My friends usually download an app and then delete it at the end of the day before they go home, and they do it every day
- My friends pretend to read but they hold their phone in their book and use it, similar to a hollow book safe, but you don’t actually cut the book
- One of my friends isn’t allowed on her phone at night so she hands it in to her mum and then uses my old phone, which her mum doesn’t know about.
Funny how often they told me about “their friends”!
In late 2018, a talk that I gave at a conference went viral. More than 79 million people watched my story, describing how force creates resistance. When we become overly forceful in our limits and discipline around tech, we rupture our relationships with our daughters. We don’t save her, elevate her grades, or prove our wisdom. We just make her mad. Once she’s mad, her rational brain turns off, she does dumb things, and we end up with bigger problems. The cycle repeats.
With younger teenagers, a higher level of control will probably work. But don’t confiscate the phone. This just makes them sneakier next time. Like Gollum, they’ll track down that phone, even if it takes them all day and night – all week! Banning or removing a device tells our daughters that the thing they love the most is at risk if they get caught doing the wrong thing … but it won’t stop them doing the wrong thing! Usually, they don’t see it as wrong. They’ll just get sneakier so you can’t get them ‘in trouble’. They’ll also stop talking to you about the things you most need to know. Someone once told me, “Don’t confiscate their device. Confiscate their charger so you can watch the look of horror build in their eyes as their battery slowly dies.”
Clear, Compassionate, Collaborative Conversations
Perhaps the most difficult challenge we face is how we communicate with our children about healthy screen use expectations. If you ask THEM , they don’t have a problem. If you ask THEM, the only issue is that we, the parents, are on their case too much about getting off their screens.
I recommend the following steps for tweens and teens:
- Typically, when the conversation about screens occurs, teenagers roll their eyes and become defensive. They know what this means. Their parents are going to tell them how it’s going to be. They hate it. They don’t feel heard. Switch things around by accentuating the positive. Ask questions like:
- What are the most positive screen experiences we have?
- What are the times when there is the least family friction around screen time?
- What are the times that screens make the best contribution to your world?
At this point, some of the previous conversation points may begin to emerge, as the discussion branches into:
- What are the negative impacts of screens that you’ve seen with your friends?
- How are screens interrupting you and your goals?
- What decisions would be best for us all in relation to screens?
- Ask them whether you can share your concerns (assuming you have them) and give them plenty of opportunity to respond. Is their view the same as yours? How are they seeing it in comparison to you? This is the perfect time to highlight what you see as risky behaviour and invite engagement on the issue.
- Invite them to develop some basic guidelines around screens that everyone can feel good about.
This process is what I call the 3 Es of Effective Discipline. We explore their world, explain our view, and empower them.
If we can have these conversations at times where emotions are cool and everyone is willing to work together, our children will generally enjoy the discussion, feel like they have a voice, and help us find useful solutions. (If we have these conversations where emotions are hot, expect a less ideal outcome.)
Now and then the 3 Es don’t work. Your child hears what you say. Your child develops some basic rules they’re happy to stick with. And then your child completely forgets, ignores, or wilfully disregards everything you’ve just discussed. What then?
You have a few options:
- Rinse and repeat with those 3 Es. Sometimes it takes a while. Recognise that the intentional persuasive design elements are actively working against your child’s decisions (and desires to follow the rules they’ve established with you). So just keep trying.
- Provide some helpful structure. For example, when screens are out of sight, they’re less likely to be a temptation. Talk with your child about times when you can make the device invisible (by putting it away). Find other ways to structure the environment to support the decisions you’re making together. It might mean changing WiFi passwords regularly, surrendering devices at a particular time, or having filters or using Screen Time.
- If you are part of a community where parents talk and share ideas, work together on solutions with other parents. All the boys gaming? Agree on shared standards or expectations with the parents. All the girls chatting on Instagram until late? Agree on shared standards or expectations with the parents. Similar rules within groups of friends can be helpful.
Remember, taking their device promotes sneaky, dishonest behaviour. Instead, talk early. Talk often. Be involved. Develop effective structures to assist in the decisions you’ve made together.
The Take Home Message
Screens are something parents need to be mindful of. But perhaps they’re not as problematic as many of us think. When we use them for active creativity and connection - as well as a little bit of passive consumption - they’ll likely enhance our lives and our children’s lives, rather than diminish them.
What matters is that we take care of the other stuff too, because the other stuff will likely predict wellbeing more.
Help your kids be active and have great relationships, to be curious and engaged in life, and to be part of something bigger than themselves. If you do this, screens will be more good than bad, and so will life.