Why Screen Time Fears are Overblown
Updated: Aug 8, 2021
Screen Time: A Necessity In a Pandemic
For decades, we implored our children to avert their eyes from digital screens. Parents issued grim warnings of blindness and brain decay. Adults bemoan the bygone era of kids playing capture the flag until twilight. Back in the day, these same kids even quenched their thirst from the nearest garden hose (the horror!) Not a smartphone or tablet screen in sight.
And then came 2020 and the pandemic. Society performed a dizzying about-face on screen time. Now, parents plead with their children to spend their days glued to a screen. Instruction, classwork, homework, connecting with friends—all virtual.
Escapist vs. Interactive Screen Time
There is some evidence that video games and TV damages kids’ minds and well-being, but the devil is in the details. Not all screen time is equal. Escapist screen time is the likely culprit underlying unhealthy outcomes in kids. This screen time comes with a tremendous cost—missed opportunity. While Netflix clicks the "play next episode" button for us, our kids are missing learning and social opportunities. Purposeful and engaging screen time fosters social interaction and meaningful learning.
Virtual learning and technology are not a replacement for in-person schooling. In a perfect world, technology enhances learning and social interactions. They are a supplement, not a substitution. Kids need to be kids. Childhood’s transformative moments happen on the playground, in the cafeteria, at a friend’s house.
Our "new normal" requires a lot of screen time for kids. While I cringe at the notion that any of this is "normal," virtual learning is a fact of life in 2020. Are parents' fears misplaced? How will this affect children's social and academic development?
Screens Turning Brains to Mush?
Smartphones’ meteoric ascent in the 2000s left society wondering about the effects on young minds.
A major 2018 study made these alarming observations:
Students who regularly spent 2 hours in front of a screen scored lower on thinking and language tests
MRI scans revealed children who used tablets, phones, TV and video games over 7 hours daily had thinning cortexes.
Sounds scary, right? The study gained international attention, including a feature on 60 Minutes. Headlines hinted at links between screen time and brain deterioration. The same researchers cautioned against jumping to conclusions:
“We don’t know if it’s being caused by the screen time. We don’t know yet if it’s a bad thing. It won’t be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we’re seeing in this single snapshot” (Dr. Gaya Dowling, 60 Minutes).
Should you worry about your child spending 7 hours in front of a screen learning? Probably not. Psychologists assert escapist screen time is the true problem. TV bingeing, Fortnite all-nighters, scrolling through Tik-Tok and Instagram. Educational and interactive screen time calls for a different perspective:
“virtual education is additional required screen time, but a student writing a critical thinking essay online or engaging with their teacher and peers in a virtual way isn’t the same as a child playing mindless video games far past bedtime without parental supervision” (Holly Prestidge, Richmond Times-Dispatch).
Limit the Junk
Educational, interactive screen time is the fruits and veggies of the digital world. Add an extra serving and reap the benefits. Escapist screen time is the tiny sliver at the top of the food pyramid. It is the empty calorie or sugar bomb of the digital world, a rare indulgence. Focus your efforts on curbing meaningless interaction—video games,
binge watching, and scrolling social media. If your child’s screen time is interactive and engaging, take a deep breath, savor your cup of coffee, and prepare to tackle the next challenge of parenting in a global pandemic.
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Sources and Further Reading:
Stone, Adam. “How Schools Are Taking SEL and Mental Health Online.” Technology Solutions That Drive Education, EdTech, 15 Sept. 2020, edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2020/08/how-schools-are-taking-sel-and-mental-health-online.
Cooper, Anderson. “Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids.” 60 Minutes, CBS News, 9 Dec. 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/groundbreaking-study-examines-effects-of-screen-time-on-kids-60-minutes/
Cramer, Maria. “Sorry, Kids. Snow Days Are Probably Over.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/09/25/us/snow-days-online-school.html.
Galvin, Gaby. “Screen Time Study Shows Differences in Kids' Brains.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 10 Dec. 2018, www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2018-12-10/screen-time-study-shows-differences-in-kids-brains-test-performance.
Prestidge, Holly. “Limiting Screen Time Used to Be a Parenting Challenge. With Virtual Learning, It's Impossible. Here's What Experts Say.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 21 Sept. 2020, richmond.com/news/local/education/limiting-screen-time-used-to-be-a-parenting-challenge-with-virtual-learning-its-impossible-heres/article_c8a8d9a3-3ed0-5a3e-b29e-c39123d39b45.html.