Two new studies on the effects of screen time upon children have parents everywhere breathing a huge sigh of relief. A report from the U.K.'s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, or RCPCH, titled The Health Impacts of Screen Time: A Guide for Clinicians and Parents, finds there is little hard evidence to prove that screen time is harmful to children. Another study just published in the journal Nature Human Behavior — The Association Between Adolescent Well-Being and Digital Technology Use — reports that using digital devices is no worse for kids than “eating potatoes.”
Headlines spawned by these studies encourage parents to put their screen time guilt away (i.e., Screen Time May Not Actually Be Bad for Children, Study Finds). But, frankly, the jury is still out on what the long-term impact of screens will be upon this generation (the iPad, after all, is barely 10 years old), so kids remain the guinea pigs of our grand experiment. The good news is there’s a massive amount of research available to tell us what constitutes healthy child development. Young children benefit from rich, multidimensional experiences in a real, three-dimensional world. They need opportunities for hands-on exploration and human interaction. A screen — regardless of whether it’s a TV, tablet, smartphone, gaming console, computer or even an internet-connected toy — get in the way of these experiences. And kids are no match for powerful devices that are designed to capture and hold their attention.
Certainly there are benefits, cognitive and otherwise, that come from children using screens, but there are downsides too. Serious ones (for example, the World Health Organization has included “gaming disorder” in its most recent revision of the International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11). You can find research to support both the benefits and the downsides if you look hard enough. But let’s set the studies aside for a moment, and allow me to share two stories.
As a digital literacy teacher, I’ve spent nearly a decade working with middle school kids. So I’ve listened to them chatter endlessly about the video games they play (in the U.S., some 97 percent of all kids play video games). Just this week, students fresh from their holiday break enthusiastically recounted the numerous hours they’d spent immersed in game play during their vacation. Despite the noisy conversation, I noticed a young boy in the front of the classroom nodding off, so I asked him why he was so tired.
“I played Minecraft until midnight, and then I couldn’t fall asleep,” he said. When I asked what his parents thought of this, he laughed. “They were sleeping, how could they possibly know what I was doing?”
On my way to the parking lot after class, a distraught parent caught me to ask advice about her middle school son. “He spends all his time on devices. He gets up before dawn to squeeze in game time before school, and it’s all he wants to do when he gets home. He’s not interested in anything else.”2 comments on this story
Granted, these are just two singular stories. But they are a carbon copy of what I see and hear every single day. This is the reality of today’s childhood. Kids love screens, sometimes too much. Most don’t have the willpower to step away and parents are mostly too busy working, getting dinner on the table or paying bills to watch what their kids are watching or doing on their screens. Plus, parents are bewildered by conflicting information — screens are good. Screens are bad. They’re somewhere in between. So many simply throw up their hands and grant their kids unfettered access, only to later discover how difficult it is to help them find balance. All of this leaves parents frustrated, kids tired and everyone arguing.
At this moment in time, no one knows how a childhood spent largely staring at a screen will shape a future generation. But we do know this: Kids get just one shot at a childhood. It’s up to us to decide if screens will interfere with the kind of childhood we want our kids to look back upon without regret.