Are Concerns About Screens Much Ado About Nothing?

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You might have caught the recent segment on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper about the effects of screens on kids and teens. Within the story, Cooper profiled a $300 million, 10-year study funded by the National Institute of Health that involves over 11,000 children and twenty-one research sites. Hopefully, researchers will help answer important questions such as how screens are affecting developing brains and whether screens can be considered addictive.

The Case Against Screens

We have a long time to wait for these study results to help guide us, but numerous researchers, such as Dr. Dimitri Christakis , a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ revised guidelines on screen time, Dr. Jean Twenge , a psychologist and professor at San Diego State University and author of iGen , and Dr. Sherry Turkle , an psychologist at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation , offer strong words of caution regarding the effects of screens. They base these concerns upon their reading of the research as well as findings from their own studies. Documentaries such as Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age , also convey similar, stark warnings.

The Case Against Alarmism

Importantly, while there is much research supporting concerns about the effects of screens, other researchers, such as Dr. Chris Ferguson of Stetson University and Dr. Andrew Przybylski of University of Oxford, cite numerous studies, and have many of their own, debunking many of the widespread fears and beliefs regarding the negative effects of screen time. Likewise, Benedict Corey, a science reporter for the New York Times, wrote a recent article Is Screen Time Bad for Kids’ Brains? , which, in part, was a response to the 60 Minutes segment. Offering a critical examination of the existing research, he cautions against jumping to conclusions about the effects of screen time on the brain.

As parents, we might feel as if we are getting mixed messages about the effects of screens. Should we be concerned or are concerns much ado about nothing? A look back in time reveals that from books to video games, every generation seems to go into some form of moral panic about new media or technology. “We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” lamented a writer in 1897 in his critique of the advent of the telephone. Such catastrophizing seems absurd in hindsight. Are concerns about screens similarly unwarranted?

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We Can’t Wait for the Results

If you are a parent of a child or teen, as I am, you probably don’t want to wait for the results from a decade-long study. We want to know what to do about screens now . Unfettered access to anything they want, any time they want, as much as they want, from age one on seems ludicrous. Given that I’ve written a book with my good friend and co-author, Dr. Jon Lasser, on this topic, Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World , I already have some opinions on this. So, I must admit to my biases. But we all have our biases. If we don’t think we have any biases, then we’ve fallen victim to what is known as bias blind spot . That is, we view others’ as influenced by various cognitive biases but believe we are not. We cannot help but have biases, especially if we have made a career out of being on one side of this debate or the other.

There Are No Simple Answers to Complicated Questions

We long for definitive answers in this complicated world. However, as Ben Franklin wrote, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Blanket statements about whether screens are good for us, bad for us, or don’t really influence us at all can’t capture the diverse range of experiences that our screens provide.

As a psychologist who frequently presents on this topic and speaks with the media regularly, I am often asked to provide simple answers to very complex questions. For example, how am I to concisely answer, “How are today’s teens being affected by their smartphones?” I wouldn’t be so cheeky to say this in person, but that’s almost like asking, “How are teens affected by life?” Our screens provide us with experiences and, simply put, our experiences affect us.

"You see much more of your children once they leave home." -Lucille Ball

It Depends

The truth is this that we will never have a definitive answer on how screens affect us because there are so many variables involved. Moreover, technologies and how we use them evolve so rapidly that research can’t keep pace. I attended a lecture by psychologist and University of Texas professor Dr. Art Markman regarding how psychologists should try to understand and explain findings from social science research. He wisely advised that our answer should be, “It depends.”

When seeking concrete advice and answers, “it depends” leaves us feeling a bit deflated and lost. However, reality is what it is, and we must learn to fully appreciated the nuances of how we can be affected by our ever-evolving technologies. Just look at how political polarization is causing rifts in our friendships, communities, and country. The world is dynamic and full of nuances (ah, almost said “…dark and full of terrors” but I stopped myself). The world is not neatly divided into black or white. As parents, we must try to navigate these waters and make sensible decisions regarding screen time.

The Diversity of Screen Experiences

How do our screens affect us? Just consider the broad range of experiences facilitated by screens in the following examples:

  • A teen and her groups of friends are using their programming skills to develop a new app that would make it easier for people to donate to charities
  • A 5-year-old plays the M-rated Call of Duty: Black Ops by himself for 6 hours per day and into the wee hours of the night, including school nights
  • A teen boy regularly texts while driving
  • A 10-year-old girl reads an hour or two per day of sci-fi/fantasy books on her Kindle Paperwhite
  • A 9-year-old boy views sadomasochistic pornography for an hour per day on the family computer (unbeknownst to his parents)
  • A middle-aged man uses his computer to write psychology blogs to post to a website.

Heidi Klum (mom of four: Leni, Henry, Johan and Lou (above)): “I’m not someone who [lives] like, ‘OK, this is a museum and you can’t sit here and you can’t touch this and everything has to be put in its place - [the kids] live here as much as we do. You come into our house and a giant elephant and lion are welcoming you. We have toys and things everywhere.”

What to Do

Let’s all agree that there are some uses of a screen that are inherently harmful and to be avoided (e.g., kids using social media to tell a teen girl she’s a loser and should kill herself, a teen texting and driving, a toddler watching hardcore pornography). Distracted driving , often due to use of smartphones, is particularly alarming because it has contributed to a rise in automobile fatalities and accidents. However, I would argue that most of people’s screen use falls within the general categories of benign or beneficial. This would include common activities such as playing video games, watching Netflix, and using email, social media, and productivity tools.

I believe a reasonable approach to screen time reflects a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It that there can be “too much of a good thing.” To be happy and healthy, we need to ensure that we are getting our basic physiological and psychological needs met. It's worth noting that these needs evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a world very different one from our current one. Such needs include:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise/physical activity
  • In-person social interactions

There are mountains of research documenting the benefits of these three areas in particular. Just how much typical screen use interferes with meeting these needs is up for debate. Again, there are many variables that come into play. However, a strong case can be made that, no matter how beneficial the screen use is, if begins to interfere too much with these basic needs, then the cons will start to outweigh the pros. For example. if a person is only getting five hours of sleep on average per night because he or she is Snapchatting, that’s going to cause serious problems.

As parents, we need to set some sensible screen limits for our kids, especially when they are younger, to ensure that screen use doesn’t significantly interfere with meeting these needs. Importantly, we need to put down our own screens to both role model for and spend quality time with our kids. When we do this, our kids can gain the many benefits that screens have to offer while also protecting the time for other need-satisfying activities that are fundamental to their well-being, health, and longevity.

By acknowledging small improvements in behaviour you make it easier for big improvements to follow.