Health,  Technology

Screen time: the good, the bad and the ugly

I don’t intend for the effects of screen time to be an ongoing focus, but since my earlier post Are smartphones harming our kids?, I’ve come across a spate of articles on the topic looking at the good, the bad and the ugly for both kids and adults. I don’t know if I’m just more aware of them or if there’s been a sudden breakout of interest, but it sure is stirring some debate.

It’s not difficult to find the doomsayers, like this article from TIME Health which quotes research by Professor Jean Twenge (who wrote the article linked to in my earlier post) suggesting smartphones are at least partly responsible for increased feelings of isolationism and depression amongst kids aged from 10 to 19, and includes scary statistics like this:

Twenge’s study found kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome.

Findings like that are enough to have any parent wanting to turn off the wifi and pull out the Scrabble board. Or keep looking to see if there are alternative views.

The same article quotes scientists who argue that correlation is not causation and it’s still too early to tell if screens are the real culprit. And Catherine Lumby, a media professor at Macquarie University, has responded to Professor Twenge’s article by quoting her own Australian research that basically argues social media is not much more than the current generation’s town square and increased findings of anxiety and depression may well just be because there’s an increase in such diagnoses generally.

In this article a journalist from the FT, whose expertise is technology rather than psychology, sets out to learn how younger kids interact with smartphones and finds they are more of a social lubricant, and for the quirkier kids they’re a way to find their own tribe of likeminded peers.

But then you get back to the scary stuff, perhaps more compelling because of that lizard part of our brain that has us on the lookout for existential threats. The Wall Street Journal has looked at the effects smartphones have on adults: highlighting the disastrous consequences of being wedded to your phone while having a brain that is simply no good at multi-tasking:

As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens… [There is] mounting evidence that using a smartphone, or even hearing one ring or vibrate, produces a welter of distractions that makes it harder to concentrate on a difficult problem or job. The division of attention impedes reasoning and performance… When people hear their phone ring but are unable to answer it, their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens, and their problem-solving skills decline.

What’s alarming is we only need to be close to our phones to be zombies, they don’t even need to be turned on!

Skepticism is always warranted, and so is awareness, but when the very designers of the technology talk about its addictive qualities it behoves us to at least pay attention to what’s going on. And when the data tells us to worry about our kids, well, it’s probably foolhardy to ignore it and surely it’s not that hard to do the basics like screen-free dinner tables and bedrooms.

I also know a lot of parents who are left almost bewildered by teenage behavior, wondering what’s gotten in to that lovely young kid from only a few years ago. If you’re interested, ABC radio’s All In The Mind had a brilliant episode a few years ago called Teenage brainstorm, which looked at the physiology of what happens to a teenager’s brain – spoiler alert, it’s got nothing to do with hormones (or phones).

Parents have always found something to worry about that could mess with their kids’ minds and it’s easy to point the finger at new, unfamiliar technology or trends: a couple of generations ago there were books written about how rock and roll music was yanking hard on the unraveling threads of civilized society, then of course all our brains were going to turn to mush because of television.

It’s a parent’s job to try to do the best for their kids so we need to be vigilant but we also need to be aware of our confirmation bias (seeking out information that agrees with our own point of view while ignoring information that contradicts it).The fretting over screens may well turn out to be misplaced, but, understandably, that’s probably not going to stop parents worrying about it.

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