Post No.: 0499
Computers became (even more) a necessity during the pandemic. They’ve been vital to help children continue their education and continue connecting with their friends. Underprivileged children without computers and internet connections have lost out the most during this time.
The benefits or harms of screens – such as televisions, monitors, tablets or smartphones – depend greatly on what they’re used for (e.g. what the children are watching, playing or learning), why (e.g. to get them to sit at the dinner table), for how long (during any single sitting and in total per week), when (only in the daytime or even just before bed) and the child’s age (e.g. under 2 years old or older, and is the activity and content age-appropriate?)
Excessive media usage, attention problems, obesity, physical inactivity, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and school difficulties, are correlated; albeit it’s difficult to determine (or rule out) the causal relationships here, if any, without further research. For sure though, there are opportunity costs if children spend too much time glued to a screen. So if a child is playing on a screen for 6 hours per day, it means they’re not likely spending much time doing other things like playing outside, socially interacting with peers in person (although this has been at times impossible during lockdowns), reading books or other constructive and varied activities.
When attempting to correct for factors like socio-economic status (SES) and parental IQ, it still seems sensible that the best current advice is no screen time for 2-year olds or younger, and moderate and controlled screen time for 3-year olds or older. But even here, it might not be the time spent watching a screen itself that matters per se but age-appropriate and educational content, and whether it’s more or less educational than what’s going on elsewhere around the house. If it’s not age-appropriate then the child won’t be able to extract much benefit from the content. And it’s about the relative benefit of screen time compared to the other things your child could be doing that’s more constructive instead – of which the latter depends greatly on each family’s particular circumstances, as well as factors like a pandemic (so don’t be harsh on yourself for things not in your control!)
For example, low-SES/disadvantaged households, and families where the parents are less able to engage in English-language educational activities (in a primarily English-speaking country), will find screen time for 3-year olds or older more relatively beneficial than parents who can take their children to parks, museums, etc. or families where the parents are able to interact with and teach their children English-language educational activities themselves. Thus, rather than kids who watch telly generally having poorer academic (e.g. English reading) skills – kids who have poor academic skills may benefit the most from extra hours of TV if they can’t get access to the same type of information and experience elsewhere in the home.
So overall, some TV is actually better than none, but of course too much TV means giving up time that could be spent doing other constructive and diverse activities that are available… if available.
There’s generally speaking nothing inherently wrong with screen time or gadget usage per se. They can be used to learn things and develop fine motor control – as long as they’re age-appropriate and your children are doing a variety of other beneficial activities too. When giving a smart device to a young child – limit their choices to the kid-friendly educational apps that you choose for them. Then possibly once they start reading books, replace the smart device with books instead. A little bit of downtime watching mindless television or playing age-appropriate videogames is absolutely fine as long as other activities important for their academic, physical, social, emotional, etc. development are in furry balance.
The main problem is trying to take these devices away from them when they’ve been on them for long enough! Using these devices can be behaviourally addictive (for both children and adults) so you must negotiate beforehand to set the clear times of the week and day they can use them (e.g. 2 hours on the weekend with a clear start and end that’s not too close to bedtime, where during the week they must make their own alternative fun and other forms of play, whether via books, crafts, toys or outdoor play). The term ‘gamification’ in economics is apt – it involves design choices that effectively aim to make an activity more addictive via frequent rewards, prizes, achievements and competitive leaderboards that people can show off with. This includes the sound effects design and musical scores. Some elements found in games are closer to direct gambling too.
New technologies do time and again generate media scare stories about how addictive they’ll be – including televisions, landline telephones, radios and even books when they first became available to the masses! But we’ll always be able to find at least one person who’ll be complaining about and wanting something abolished if we want to find them, and then the media will overblow their comments as if everyone is thinking the same thing!
However, we can also find stories of people accusing others of scaremongering regarding genuine harms to health too, such as climate change, viruses, tobacco, guns or even addictive substances themselves, if we’d like to cherry-pick media statements about what ‘they said’ – whoever ‘they’ refers to?!
Although it’s not as common as some fear, there do exist cases of people who exhibit signs of behavioural addictions for watching television, using smartphones or playing videogames too much, to the detriment of their physical and/or mental health. Thus we must take everything and everyone on a case-by-case basis.
Anything we do in a regular way, an intensive way and/or for a long enough time will physically change the structure of our brains in notable ways, for better (e.g. becoming expert at a practised skill) or worse (e.g. developing a dependency or addiction to something). Again, electronic devices are good or bad depending on what we do with them, and what we give up doing whilst we’re using them (which is related to how long we use them), rather than are inherently good or bad. They can connect us with others around the world, teach us things we’d otherwise not have had a chance of learning, and train us through cognitively challenging games, for instance. But they can also potentially reduce our attention spans if we’re being constantly distracted by them, reduce our ability to memorise things inside our own heads if we over-rely on them to remind us of things instead, and might even reduce our empathy skills if we’re constantly looking down upon a screen when in public rather than interacting with the people physically around us, for instance. (Some kids even cross roads without watching for traffic because they’re staring at their phones and have their ear/headphones on!)
Age restrictions exist for different social media services, and most of the main services currently set it at 13 years old (albeit the enforcement of these restrictions by these platforms is currently weak to non-existent!) Social media brings lots of benefits, such as connecting people together and sharing things, so just about no one is calling for it to be abolished. Social media users tend to share stories that are more positive and fun than the stories found in the mainstream media (although the latter doesn’t exactly set a high benchmark here because it’s usually full of stories of conflicts, disasters, threats and losses!) People generally disclose far more about themselves on social media than they would to people when face-to-face, for better or worse. It offers communication, support and information, connects and opens dialogues. It gives a global voice to anyone and mobilises calls to action. For many, it’s an invaluable part of their lives.
However, we may feel quite connected to other people online – even with people from all around the world – but we might actually only be connected to other people within our own areas of interests or beliefs; not being aware that there’s an even wider world out there with differing views and beliefs. And children could be shared things that harm them, such as abusive messages, bullying and trolling, and images that make them feel insecure or exploit an existing vulnerability. There’s also the risk of children being groomed online.
Modern life and social media involves so much time being mindlessly wasted when one falls into a spiral of clickbait traps, watching video after video because of what’s recommended to watch next, taking too many selfies, scrolling through all of the photos and updates of the hundreds of people one follows that have just been uploaded over the past day, every day, and scrutinising and judging other people’s lives and worldviews as portrayed in their post history out of nosiness more than out of care. A lot of it is FOMO but when you look back you realise you would’ve missed very little.
Life, especially for young adults, would be better if people stopped chasing ‘likes’ or followers for the sake of chasing quantity over quality. Some users will only keep following a social media account if they get followed in return i.e. they’re not really interested in other accounts and their only aim is to increase their own follow count i.e. a number.
Once more, all that time spent on social media is time that could’ve been more productively spent elsewhere (e.g. on exercising, developing different skills, studying, getting enough sleep, quality family time). Not everything on social media is mindless but much of the most popular stuff is (I’ll except adorable animal videos!) and some stuff is harmful too. Sometimes I do question why so many people – young and old – spend so much time watching such mindless material, and then mindlessly believe or copy what they see too. Nothing comes for free when it costs your limited amount of time in this world. Woof!
There exist some adolescents now who barely ever give or accept voice calls because they’d rather write and text. Lots of information, such as vocal intonation, speech rate and pacing, and the subtle emotions these can convey, are missing when texting. Emojis and emoticons somewhat replace these cues but not entirely. So empathy reduces. Socially bonding contagious cues like laughter aren’t as effective via text messages. It’s also easier to lie when texting because it’s harder to read someone’s emotions and people can take their time to compose replies rather than have to think on the spot. Taking our time to think before replying is oftentimes useful though, and with text-based communications, we should be able to pause and think before responding angrily to something someone else wrote. Yet hiding behind a screen (and maybe an anonymous account or pseudonym that cannot be easily de-anonymised or identified when interacting with strangers – ahem) and not being within punching distance can instead make people feel more empowered to hastily express their angry or inconsiderate opinions more(!)
In summary, when it comes to children and electronic device and screen time, it’s about the specific activity, age-appropriateness and overall balance with other productive activities. The parental and security settings also need to be understood and utilised. Regarding social media, it’s better to be actively engaged (e.g. posting and responding) rather than merely passively looking through what other people have posted, for which the latter might increase insecure feelings because what people post tends to primarily be carefully curated to show their more interesting sides, the more glamorous events in their lives and photos of them with flattering filters. Here too, understand and utilise the privacy and security settings, understand and follow ‘netiquette’ (network etiquette), and keep safe online.
Woof. If you’re a parent, or adolescent – what are your views on screen time and social media in the context of parenting? You can share these, perhaps ironically, via the Twitter comment button below(!)