Introducing the Great Screen Time Conundrum
by Soda Says
3 weeks ago
How much is too much screen time when it comes to children?
Two hours a day? Never on schooldays? As much as they like when you want some peace and quiet? Or are you more irrational like me and shout: “I’m taking your phone away for whole week - make that a month!”, when they finally push you over the edge over some other random misdemeanour. (You never stick to it).
No wonder everyone’s confused with all these mixed messages. A study published in Preventative Medicine Reports last year found young people who spend at least seven hours a day interacting with screens are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as those who use them less often. (The data came from more than 40,000 kids ages two to 17). Despite the large database, the question should be asked - are children already prone to depression simply more likely to spend lots of time on screens? The study didn’t answer that.
However, there are some things everyone seems to agree on. The American Academy of Paedeatrics ( AAP) recommends children aged two to five limit their screen time to one hour a day, not including time spent Face-timing grandma. Sound advice surely, especially after news reports last week found that a Chinese two year had developed severe myopia from staring at her tablet. (By 2030 it is predicted China will have 137 million myopic school aged children - 55.6% of the school aged population). Scary.
Interestingly, the AAP do not recommend specific screen-time restrictions for older kids. Computer scientist Elizabeth Tweedale, author of five books on children’s tech, agrees with that free flow policy.
“We are often too focused on raw hours and minutes, rather than what they’re actually doing on the screen,” said Tweedale, 35, who grew up in America but has lived in west London for 11 years. She has a 10 year old boy and an eight year old girl who each have an iPhone, tablet and computer. They also operate their own YouTube channels, run an online shop and don’t have parents who say: “That computer will turn your brain to mush!”
“It’s the content rather than the time that’s important,” says Tweedale who distinguishes between four types of screen time: creative (making music, writing stories , art etc); communicative (hanging out on Snapchat or WhatsApp); active (gaming and social-media grazing); and passive (scrolling through YouTube or TV).
The creative stuff should definitely not be limited, she says. The second is not bad as long as they aren’t on it all the time, gaming needs limits and passive scrolling needs strict limits. So there you go - Tweedale is not really that free flowing when it comes to screen time after all.
Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, seems to have the best approach. He says that much of what happens on screen provides “impoverished” stimulation to a child’s developing brain, compared to human interaction. You know - actually playing a sport, watching a theatre production or learning how to tie a rope properly. Rich believes children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences - including doing nothing much (a daily diet for many baby boomers in the 60s and 70s).
“Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen,” he says. Add to boredom a good night’s sleep (essential for any growing brain), plus access to some screen time and perhaps you have the perfect combination.
Everything in moderation, as my wise mother used to say.
To start the conversation, we commissioned Kate Peachway, NYC parent and hedge fund investor who is in favour of limiting screen time, and Mo White, technology executive and brand strategist who argues the opposite case. We interviewed Tarika Marshall who spent 15 years developing mobile games for kids to then create a company Humankind Technologies dedicated to creating “digital balance”. We know there’s no right answer, so let’s start with a conversation. Enjoy.
Jackie Annesley is the Creative Director for Soda Says alongside writing for publications like The Sunday Times, Harpers Bazaar and other online websites.