Is screen time something we should really be afraid of?

Is screen time something we should really be afraid of?

Every now and then you read a piece that makes the hang-on-a-minute klaxon go off loudly. This piece in The Conversation titled Devices in schools and at home means too much screen time for kids was one of those. Below is the comment I left on the original piece, as a few questions came to mind about the soundness and reasonableness of some of facts the piece states and the conclusions it reaches. Quotes from the original text are shown indented.

It is likely that school-provided or self-provided device programs greatly increase students’ screen time both at school and at home. This is problematic.

Why is this problematic? Is the concern that “screen time” encourages sedentary behaviour? If that is the case, our schools do a pretty good job of ensuring that children remain sedentary for hours at a time, whether they have a textbook or a tablet in front of them is neither here nor there, surely.

Or is it a concern about possible damage to the eyes? If so, research shows that reading off a bright screen before bedtime is to be avoided. The rest of the time whether we are “staring into” a screen or “staring into” a book or textbook appears to be pretty inconsequential.

In any case, I think a first step would be to define what “screen time” actually is. Is it watching tv? Playing a game? Reading a novel? Writing an essay? Revising for maths? All of the above? If it is all of the above, is it conceivable that some kinds of screen time may actually be beneficial to learning (e.g. supporting the delivery of timely feedback, independent study, meta-cognition, self-regulation…)

Heavy screen use has been associated with a range of health issues, such as obesity, spinal issues, ocular health problems and sleep disruption.

Is this correlation or causation?

Mental health may be affected, and increasing access to devices may also lead to increased opportunities for cyberbullying.

I think the link to mental health is alarmist. You appear to draw this conclusion from one Chinese study. Can this be backed up by other research? Other studies have shown social media can have positive effects on mental health, for example. My reading is that evidence for or against this remains pretty inconclusive and could be ameliorated simply by encouraging moderation.

Is the link to cyberbullying a correlation? Can we say for certain that providing children with mobile devices causes more cyberbullying?

Thus a child who spends five hours on their device at school, followed by three hours of homework on their device, would not be exceeding the guidelines unless he or she then spent more than two hours in front of the screen for recreational purposes.

Is this a fact? Have you observed children at school spending 5 hours in front of a screen? In my experience, children in 1:1 or BYOD environments simply do not spend 5 hours in front of the screen. The use of tablets in lessons is very task-specific – some tasks lend themselves to the tablets, others don’t. This means that the tablets come out when and if required. Assuming that children are/would be in front of their tablets continuously for 5 hours is an exaggeration and any conclusions drawn from this would be wide off the mark, in my view.

What do you think?

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  1. Jose, I think the issues around screen time fall into two areas for me – the first is games (or social media), which are written to engage us (adults and children) and keep us enthralled, can lead to obsessive behaviours and mean that without intervention we can start to lose an effective balance between activities – learning to take a step back and look at our own online use helps to address this lack of balance (if one wants to) and at least be aware of the impact. The second is around guidance coming from occupational health around posture amd impact on eye sight through eye strain from not focussing on different objects. This is not a technical issue just an educational one about finding appropriate postures when using devices and taking regular breaks to limit strain on the eyes. Stuff we have been banging on about ever since I started teaching IT and before the advent of tablets and dare I say it smart phones.
    Rather than pillorying the technology, we should be giving the children the ability to identify issues in their own behaviours and adjust them, and to help them use technology withoug impacting on their physical health by adjusting how they use it, not how long.
    I, of course, enforce “rigid” screen time at home to make it easier to drag them out into the countryside or remind them that there is life beyond an LED screen – I provide the balance at the moment but endeavouring to train them to think about their use so they can find the balance themselves (with some intervention occasionaly no doubt)

  2. Great and as ever thoughtful and well-informed post Jose.

    There is an argument that for many, if not the vast majority of parents we work with, who with the best will in the world do not have the time or inclination to study and understand the detail of this on-going debate that some common sense advice is needed?

    The old saying of everything in moderation is the best I can come up with.

    I do worry with my own kids about doing too much of anything, especially passively. I also have concerns (perhaps unfounded / unsupported) at this stage about the mental health issues raised in the initial post, especially with children who may have a natural predisposition to such issues. I wouldn’t want to wait for the correlation / causation argument on this one to be resolved especially with the various political arguments raging over the cost of 1:1 schemes. It might just take too long for some.

    I very much enjoyed taking my two eldest on a hiking trip high into the Sierra Nevada in Spain this summer. They were initially concerned about “having nothing to do up there” as I had banned devices – not least because we were unsure about accessing power & data. As it was both were in abundance in a hut at 2500m! We very much all enjoyed hard physical exercise, talking, playing chess, doing nothing and meeting new folk despite the language barriers.

    So much of this as you and others constantly point out is down to common sense, but consistently strong, parenting.

    Speak soon.


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