August 9, 2020

Screen time is a real problem, but it isn’t the kids you need to worry about (maybe)

I’m a gadget dad. I take pride in the fact that my kids will never fall into the digital divide. From an early age, they have been black belt texters, Googlers, and gamers.

But I’m torn.

On the one hand, as a creative person, I’ve seen devices as essential to producing writing, art, video, and so on. I want them to master these skills for school and life.

On the other hand, there is an annoying thought dancing in the back of my mind, shouting about the dangers of too much iTime.

Many educated people in my network are strict about monitoring their kids’ screen time. I’ve read the trend in Silicon Valley is for tech workers to create tech-less environments for their children.

“Am I a bad parent?” I don’t think so.

Now science ways in on the issue. Maybe screen time may not be the problem many of the studies have told us it is.

This from Scientific American:

Social media is linked to depression—or not. First-person shooter video games are good for cognition—or they encourage violence. Young people are either more connected—or more isolated than ever.

Such are the conflicting messages about the effects of technology on children’s well-being. Negative findings receive far more attention and have fueled panic among parents and educators. This state of affairs reflects a heated debate among scientists. Studies showing statistically significant negative effects are followed by others revealing positive effects or none at all—sometimes using the same data set.

A new paper by scientists at the University of Oxford, published this weekin Nature Human Behaviour, should help clear up the confusion. It reveals the pitfalls of the statistical methods scientists have employed and offers a more rigorous alternative. And, importantly, it uses data on more than 350,000 adolescents to show persuasively that, at a population level, technology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent psychological well-being, measured in a range of questions addressing depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, pro-social behavior, peer-relationship problems and the like. Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.

See the study here.

For a second, after reading that article I felt vindicated. But, it didn’t last.

First of all, the conclusion doesn’t say screen time is good or that it doesn’t matter. If children spend 1 to 2 hours of screen time per day it’s probably not a problem. More than that could be trouble.

I get weekly updates from Microsoft that tells me how much Fortnite time the kids have logged. It’s eye-popping. So bad I don’t want to tell you.

But, that’s not really the problem.

There’s another screen time threat raised by Erika Christakis in an Atlantic article from last summer:

…for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

Parents living in their own screens is a bigger danger because it infringes on time and interaction with children.

All I can say is “guilty.”

Must. Do Better.

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