Not all screen time is equal Some considerations for schools and parents

Human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate

The notion of screen time evokes strong and often negative emotions. Photographs of people, young and old alike, staring into screens instead of talking to each other are almost always followed by dispirited comments about the dysfunctional state of our society.

Parents of young children, including me, worry and often feel enormous guilt when their children spend too long in front of devices instead of running around outside, getting fresh air and climbing trees. And spare a thought for parents of adolescent children. They too feel anxious and concerned about how long their 15 year old spends locked up in her room in front of a screen instead of getting more involved in family life.

Even if you don’t have any children, you are probably troubled at times by the realisation that you are surrounded by a seemingly ever-increasing amount of screens. Computer screens at work, television screens at home, and tablet screens in a variety of sizes for when you’re making your way from one to the other. Combine all this and you might be forgiven for thinking the world is going to pot and we have a big, big problem. But have we?

The media’s tendency to resort to click bait journalism and our human propensity to favour simple solutions to complex problems over complex solutions to simple problems have coalesced to create the widespread perception that technology is eroding away at our humanity. From Nicholas Carr’s implausible yet widely accepted claim that having more sources of knowledge and information at our fingertips is somehow making us dumber to Sherry Turkle’s specious contention that checking social media on smartphones and tablets is causing us to be “alone together”, the internet – and I hope the irony is not lost on you – is full of dystopian visions warning about the dire consequences of our addiction to technology.

So, is technology actually bad for us? Is it bad for children? It is certainly a question worth asking. There is a substantial number of studies that, for example, have looked at the effect of video games or at what effect looking into bright screens for prolonged periods has on our eyes. Whereas the balance is tipping in favour of ‘video games are good for you’, when it comes to screen time it is widely accepted by the scientific community that prolonged exposure to bright screens can harm our eyes. This is not disputed, but if you compare this to the fact that it is well known that simply reading paper books can cause myopia, and yet nobody seriously suggests that children should stop reading, you begin to realise just how hysterical the guidance surrounding screen time can be.

Chris Ferguson, professor of psychology, believes that much of this apparently negative expert opinion can be explained through a phenomenon he calls ‘the scientific pile-on effect’. Ferguson thinks that, in clinical psychology, “once something is identified as ‘naughty’, it’s predictable to see an ever-increasing crescendo of studies linking the naughty thing to everything bad imaginable… bad behaviours, low intelligence, adult health problems, cancer, global warming…” And he cautions that “this is really the inverse of snake oil salesmanship. Just as hucksters sold junk medicines with cure-all promises, academic psychology spends too much time selling moral agendas with claims that the naughty thing, whatever it is, causes all problems, just as snake oils cure all ills. This scientific pile-on effect should be a warning that something has gone amiss in the scientific process.”

This moral agenda, apparently backed by clinical psychology, contributes to the blatant medicalisation of this perceived problem, encouraging us to view the use of technology through the lens of pathology. So we talk about addiction, dependency and detox, as if the use of technology in our daily lives were analogous to injecting heroine or smoking crack cocaine. But professor Tanya Byron is sceptical about this medicalisation. Byron suggests that “by labelling [technology use] as an addiction before we really understand the processes at work we run the risk of removing our own responsibility for how we use technology”.

And herein lies the paradox: many things that you can do on screen – reading a book, video conferencing with relatives abroad, playing video games or watching a nature documentary – are generally good. Yet screen time is bad, for so say the experts. So which is it? Should we or shouldn’t we?

Maybe technology is not the problem. Maybe it’s just down to human behaviour. Consider again the parents of young children who worry about screen time but put their toddlers in from of an iPad for hours on end and then blame the technology. Consider the fact that teenagers have been locking themselves up in their rooms, avoiding talking to their parents and responding only with barely audible grunts to ‘how was school today?’ for, probably, centuries. Screens didn’t cause any of this. From this perspective, the mere existence of screens contributes to this problem in the same way that cars contribute to crashes. That’s right, car crashes wouldn’t happen if there weren’t any cars, but it is the person in control behind the wheel who causes them, not the car.

None of this is to say that we should carry on unconcerned when addictive behaviour is displayed around the use of technology, be it social media, video games or Pokémon Go. Instead I suggest that we should be concerning ourselves with controlling our behaviour, in the knowledge that most of us will be able to develop and exercise an appropriate level of agency and self-control, but fully aware that some individuals will inevitably lose control. As Byron observes, “of course there are those who are vulnerable and who may become addicted to new, pleasurable behaviours. We have a duty of care to those people. But as a species, this is about adaptation, it’s about understanding our behaviour, not panicking about change and taking personal responsibility – responsibility as parent, responsibility as individuals, and as a society as a whole.”

Personally, I am persuaded by the conclusions of Sonia Livingstone, professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE and Alicia Blum-Ross, research officer in the same department. According to Livingstone and Blum-Ross ‘screen time’ “is an obsolete concept. As digital media become integrated into all aspects of daily life, it is more important to consider the context and content of digital media use, and the connections children and young people (and parents) are making, or not, than to consider arbitrary rules about time.”

The essence of this approach is that we should fret less about how long we spend in front of a screen and worry more about what we are doing on said screens. Catching up with geographically distant friends and family members, keeping up with current affairs or reading an e-book are all demonstrably good and fruitful things to be doing in one’s spare time. The fact that we are doing this on a tablet, a laptop or smartphone should not really matter and it’s certainly not bad for us.

But do consider your context. There are occasions when – rightly so – it is socially unacceptable to spend too long or any time at all on devices. When you are out at the cinema, the theatre, or with some friends we should avoid the temptation to check our smartphones. This is not because technology is bad for us, but rather to avoid being rude to others.

If you feel trapped in a maelstrom of notifications, emails, messages, pings and whistles that are vying for your attention, it may feel that ‘detoxing’ and eschewing technology altogether for days or weeks at a time may be the solution. But this simple solution doesn’t even touch the more complex problem of controlling our behaviour. Instead of a full detox, we could first consider turning on the do-not-disturb feature our smartphones or tablets and leaving it on permanently. Perhaps switch off notifications altogether to avoid pop ups and vibrations. This is how my tablet and smartphone are set, so I am never disturbed when I am reading a book, marking students’ work or having dinner with my friends or family. I check any messages when I’m ready, not when my devices buzz a demand for my attention. It’s a more complex, but highly effective solution.

As schools begin to explore the educational potential of using more devices with screens in the classroom, parents who don’t necessarily understand how this technology is used might understandably but erroneously assume that technology in schools is used in the same way that it has traditionally been used at home, that is to say to keep children entertained, busy and quiet. Schools clearly have a responsibility to explain more clearly and justify how technology is being used to support great teaching and learning. Are the children reading and writing more? Are the children learning maths more easily? Is it easier to learn a foreign language? Can teachers give feedback more effectively? These are the really important questions that need an answer. This is where researchers need to be focusing their research. ‘Are the children spending more time on screens?’ is a valid but much less important question, since it’s what they are doing on those screens that really matters.

Angharad Rudkin, clinical psychologist, suggests that “any guidance needs to be based on solid evidence base rather than a fear of change. We need good quality research that looks in detail at different aspects of child development and their relation to screen time.” Rudkin concludes “I think the next step is to empower parents. Teach them how to identify when screen time is becoming problematic for their child (meaning that is interfering with normal development and functioning) and give them the confidence to manage it.”

In summary, not all screen time is equal, so we should probably adjust our advice accordingly.

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  1. A really thoughtful piece (as always). I recently was asked to speak about our eLearning strategy at a conference – the speaker immediately before me, a passionate advocate of children engaging in more sport who said many sensible things, made the strong point about children having too much screen time…. it is not easy to follow up that without addressing his point – I wasn’t arguing for children to have more screen time, rather better quality screen time!

  2. I think you just nail it here, Jose. This is definitely the post I hoped you would write when we had our recent interchange on Twitter!

    I’m a great fan of Twitter and social networking used appropriately and judiciously. I love sharing and connecting – my involvement in social networks has led to all kinds of opportunities and positive experiences for me, and I hope some of the things I share are useful to fellow educators. BUT the behaviour issue you identify here does give me pause for thought. When I see families or groups of friends physically together but all interacting with their screens rather than each other it does make me feel uncomfortable. As you say, it seems rude and disrespectful of your company. And I do worry about how some adults model this to their children, who then see this as an acceptable way of treating those you are with. One father I know checks Twitter all the time he’s kicking a football with his young son….

    Technology needs to be a tool we use wisely and not something we just react to. This is about habit, self-discipline and motivation, I think. It’s a really important issue to raise.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Thank you for a well written article that I can reference. I get parents/teachers/adults saying this all of the time. And my argument is always, it’s about what their doing not that their on a screen. Passive / babysitting screen time is different to creative screen time. Thank you again.

  4. Great post Jose! I have been working with technology in education for several years now and I have often come across these fears, from colleagues and parents. I have supported my work with many of the points you raise in your post, although I based myself on personal opinion and intuition rather than facts and research like you. Thank you for making your point so clearly and supporting teachers who want to use technology to move forward and not be held back by those who do not.

  5. Yes you’re right about it depending on what’s on the screen. The issue I constantly have with my 16 and 14 yr olds is monitoring just what the ‘what’ is. It’s really not easy to do, and so we have to resort to timed interaction.

Your feedback and comments are very welcome