By Shelby Huffman
Last month, the New York Times’ Well Blog ran two posts about children’s screen time. The first lists a number of ways in which excessive screen time is harming today’s children (1), and the second is a call for parents to set a good example and reduce their own screen time (2). The first post focuses on ways that screen time can impair children’s social, intellectual, and emotional growth. Although some valid concerns are raised, the effects of the behaviours encompassed in “screen time” are not as unanimously harmful as the article suggests by making no mention of the ways in which screen time can have positive effects.
The devices in question have become ubiquitous, and children will benefit from learning how to use them and interact through them. The results of studies about the developmental impacts of TV time have often been confounded by sociodemographic factors, and assuming that an extra hour of TV time will be replaced by active, quality family time may be overly optimistic in many cases (3). Emily Oster at Five Thirty Eight points out that many kids won’t necessarily spend the time running on the track or discussing current events with grandma, as the AAP guidelines for screen time imply (3). It’s also important to consider the content involved- these devices offer numerous applications that children can use in constructive and educational ways and ultimately, children will grow up and be expected to use them proficiently (4).
So the psychosocial impacts of screen time remain unclear, but there is another related concern that is less nuanced- the sitting time associated with this behaviour. The evidence related to the negative health effects of sedentary activity for children makes a more convincing case for reducing sedentary screen time than the mixed evidence related to cognitive and social development (5), and applies to adults and children alike. But if someone wants to cut down on their family’s screen time, how should they go about it? This can be tricky; as most of us know, these devices can be very addicting.
Early this year, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health released a free guide titled “Outsmarting the Smart Screen: A Parent’s Guide to the Tools that are Here to Help” (6). The guide outlines a list of apps and settings that parents can use to set limits on their child’s use of various devices. These tools are appealing because they reduce the time and energy required to continually monitor their child’s screen time, and the emotional costs of related conflicts (6). Less convinced by these methods, Jordan Shapiro at Forbes argues that surrendering the authority to regulate screen time to the device itself teaches kids to play until the device stops them, and denies them the chance to learn to manage their own time. (7) Beth Skwarecki at PLOS advocates for unlimited screen time, claiming that doing so allows the novelty to wear off, and gives kids the flexibility to use the devices as educational tools (4).
Another suggestion for cutting kids’ screen time, and the one highlighted in the second New York Times post is that parents need to cut back on their own screen time. The article gives some suggestions for when parents should avoid using their devices (when kids first come home from school, at dinner, before bed) and examples of ways that children are affected by their parents’ screen time I consulted the comments section to try and gauge how some parents felt about the post, which gives some suggestions for when parents should avoid using their devices and examples of ways that children are affected by their parents’ screen time.
On one hand there are numerous stories along the lines of “The other day I saw a parent using their phone when they should have been paying attention to their child”. There are also the ever-present expressions of concern over what future generations will grow up to be like. On the other hand, some point out that children are often boring to spend time with and parents are justified in spending some time on their phone once in a while. Some are required to use their devices for work outside of work hours, which, while not ideal, is not entirely within their control. Most people seem to agree that it would be nice to cut down their screen time, and would like their children to do the same.
The use of screens in itself has in many cases been vilified to an unnecessary extent- unless a parent is using their phone while their kid is in actual danger, people should avoid making snap judgments about their parenting skills. However, while the jury is still out on many of the effects of screen time for children, there is greater consensus that the associated long periods of sitting time are harmful and should be limited. One important thing moving forward is not to frame excess screen time for parents or children strictly as a moral failure on the part of the parent, to encourage more productive discussions about how to effectively cut back on screen time, or at least make screen time less sedentary.