Screen time and children: what’s the problem?

Screen time – that shorthand for the hours children spend on digital devices – has become a contentious topic in recent years. Blamed for everything from obesity to sleep issues and cyber bullying, kneejerk reactions have tended towards the hardline. Politicians have called for time limits on social media and the debate has become both politicised and polarised.

Children looking at a screen

It is confusing for parents and for the educators who want to support them. Last week saw two new developments. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stepped into the fray with screen time guidelines for small children linked to advice on physical activity and bedtimes. It advised that children under the age of three should not watch TV or sit playing games on a tablet, while those aged three and four should not have more than an hour of screen time a day. Feathers were ruffled.

Meanwhile, a new study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) suggests that there is little evidence of a link between the amount of time teenagers spend on devices and their general wellbeing. Both the WHO advice and OII study have, of course, been criticised.

Evidence-based approach

However, a sensible report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) at the start of the year was something of a breath of fresh air amid the panic and confusion. It took an evidence-based and measured approach to the issue, declining to lay down the law with age-related time limits but instead empowering parents to monitor the effects of time spent on digital devices by asking themselves four straightforward questions:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep (with advice of no screens an hour before bed)?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time use?

This seems to be a simple and sensible way to get to the heart of the critical question: is there actually a problem? As the RCPCH says,

“If a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue.”

The UK Safer Internet Centre offers some similarly straightforward tips for parents in its pages on screen time:

  • Use digital devices together
  • Set clear expectations
  • Be informed
  • Establish good habits early on

Quantity or quality?

But how useful is the whole notion of ‘screen time’ anyway? In an excellent blog post in which he urges maximising creative time rather than minimising screen time, Mitch Resnick comments,

“Of course there’s a problem if children spend all their time interacting with screens — just as there would be a problem if they spent all their time playing the violin or reading books or playing sports. Spending all your time on any one thing is problematic. But the most important issue with screen time is not quantity but quality.”

At London CLC we would argue that there is a crucial difference between different types of screen time, a distinction that is often overlooked in the moral panic over children’s screen time. What you do on a screen is arguably more important than the amount of time you spend on it. A scheduled video chat with a relative in a far away country or even a parent who is working away from home for a few days is a world away from mindless scrolling. Parents’ alarm about screens is often a more justifiable alarm about products which monetise our (children’s) attention. In this respect, setting time limits isn’t useful.

Schoolchildren looking at screens

However, this is at odds with government minister Matt Hancock’s call for time limits on social media use and the guidance in US and Canada. It can also be contrasted with the Department for Education’s recent EdTech Strategy, which advocates the use of home learning early years apps “to improve literacy and communication skills for disadvantaged children”. It’s a complicated area and one that has been explored in depth by LSE professor Sonia Livingstone in her highly respected research into this area. Her work with Alicia Blum-Ross, The Trouble with Screen Time Rules, is an excellent introduction to the argument that the debate needs to shift focus to context, content and child. More recently, she has called for constructive guidance that helps parents realise the advantages of the digital age as well as avoid its harms, such as the positive smartphone opportunities that become evident when adults take the time to find out from children and young people how they use their phones and the benefits they gain from them.

How devices differ

Lumping all use of digital devices into one category of ‘screen time’ also fails to recognise the differences between using phones, tablets and laptops – and the different things young people do on them. At our last online safety conference, Revealing Reality presented their report Through the Looking Glass which explores smartphones in particular, looking at

  • How smartphones’ limitations influence software design and user behaviour
  • How smartphones’ versatility often comes at a cost
  • The illusions of smartphone’s meeting all the user’s needs
  • How to better equip young people with ‘digital skills’ in order to educate and empower

It notes that smartphones are optimised for consumption rather than creation. There is also evidence that devices and the platforms we use on them are designed to addict us to certain behaviours, as Shoshana Zuboff has explored in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Functionality is limited but smartphone users default to using them for everything, even if they are not the best tool for the job. This creates an illusion that the smartphone meets all their needs – for connection, creativity, exploration and productivity – even if there might be better, smarter, more meaningful tools.

A digital skills framework

It calls for a digital skills framework that helps young people to understand that “being digitally skilled requires the appreciation of a wider toolkit and the strengths, weaknesses and cost of using tools in any given situation.”

For us at London CLC, this taps into the wider debate around the need for greater digital criticality – for everyone. We all need to be more critical learners in the digital age (as we set out in our Bett talk in January) using the right tools for the job, whether that’s consuming, creating or evaluating information. This applies just as much to parents and educators reading news stories and politicians’ pronouncements on screen time as it does to the young people we seek to support.

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