The letter in The Guardian, “Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype” is just one of a myriad volleys from the trenches in the war on screen time. This lob is written by the screen’s defenders: those who question what they see as an unfounded condemnation of children’s using phones, computers and associated screens.
This letter asserts that many people are demonizing children’s screen time without adequate data to back up the condemnation. The letter is in response to another letter, also signed by a long list of health professionals, who raise alarm bells at the overall health of children, and put a portion of the blame on “screen time “.
Both sides of the “screen time” and children debate have valid points, but some errors in logic as well. I think one of the errors made by both sides is lumping all online or computer activity in the same box. We as humans are drawn toward absolutes: easy binary judgements. This is either good or bad. The reality is usually in that murky middle grey zone.
If I ask my teenage children what they’re doing on their phones, I will get a wide variety of answers. Yes, there’s a lot of inane Instagram chat, and Sponge Bob videos being consumed: But there are also answers which have pleasantly surprised me. Regularly, my teenagers are doing something of value: watching videos on mitosis, or reading about the rise of fascism in Europe, or giving an online friend some advice. Sue Fletcher of the University of Edinburgh writes about the importance of realizing that “screen time” is actually a wide diversity of activities, “Any research on this issue needs to capture the quality, not just the quantity, of activities engaged in by children and attempt to make distinctions between more or less valuable types of engagement.”
So do the negatives of “screen time” outweigh the positives? Or vice versa? With new technology, there is no long-term data so ultimately we don’t know the answer to this question. Hence the endless volleys back and forth from both camps.
We can however look back to similar controversies of the past, and search for clues to how this may play out. In the 1950s, children were under attack by a different media demon: comic books. John Mason Browne writing in the Saturday Review of Literature deemed comics “the marijuana of the nursery, the bane of the bassinet, the horror of the home, the curse of the kids, and a threat to the future. “
Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist and author of Seduction of the Innocent, a best-selling book on the dangers of comic books, wrote that “All child drug addicts, and all children drawn into the narcotics traffic as messengers, with whom we have had contact, were inveterate comic-book readers (Wertham, 1954, p. 261)”.
Comics, we now realize, did not destroy a generation of youth. As such, they did not deserve the condemnation they received in the 50s. Comics did very well in the following half century. They evolved from being the juvenile delinquent of literature to the belle of the literary ball. In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s Maus was the first graphic novel (aka comic book) to win a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps the same will happen with our online digital media. Who will win the first Pulitzer for a video game?
In 2016, Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone of The London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Media and Communications, published a policy brief entitled Families and Screen Time: Current advice and emerging research. Amidst the noise of the “screen time” debate, it strikes a sensible tone. They take a child-centre approach to the issue, which seems logical (Blum-Ross, A. and S. Livingstone, 2016, p.30):
Parents should not automatically assume their child’s digital media use is problematic. Rather than limiting screen time according to an arbitrary figure, we recommend that parents consider screen context, content and connections by asking themselves:
Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
Is my child connecting socially with family and friends (in any form)?
Is my child engaged with and achieving in school?
Is my child pursuing interests and hobbies (in any form)?
Is my child having fun and learning in their use of digital media?
If the answer to the above questions is more or less ‘yes’, then it may be that parents could consider whether their fears over digital media use are well-founded. If the answer to these questions is more or less ‘no’, then these particular parents and children may need to put in place regulations and restrictions in order to address problematic use.
I think that this simple checklist is a great place to anchor the debate.
Blum-Ross, A. and S. Livingstone (2016) Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research. Media Policy Brief 17. London: Media Policy Project, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Katz, S. (1948, December 12). What About the Comics? Macleans Magazine Retrieved from: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1948/12/1/what-about-the-comics
Palmer, S. et al. (2016, December 25) Screen-based lifestyle harms children’s health. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/25/screen-based-lifestyle-harms-health-of-children
The University of Edinburgh. (n.d.) Fletcher-Watson, S., A response to “screen based lifestyle harms children’s health”. Retrieved from: https://dart.ed.ac.uk/guardian_letter/
Wertham, F. (1954) Seduction of the Innocent. New York City: Rinehart and Company.