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three children looking at cell phone screens

What Parents are Getting Wrong About Screen Time

The argument against screen time has become a moral panic which doesn't help anyone.

By
Apr 05 2021, 4:38 PM

It’s hard not to feel guilty about how much screen time I give my children. And despite the fact that I have worked hard to set reasonable limits by wrangling the variety of painfully user-hostile parental controls available to me, I still feel like I’m doing it wrong.

It’s easy to understand why that might be. It seems like there’s a constant, spooky media churn surrounding the childhood dangers of screen time. Consider headlines like “Excessive Screen Time May Have a Scary Effect on Kids” that were generated by a 2019 study from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. That study, titled “Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children,” found that children exceeding the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time recommendations of two hours per day had “lower microstructural integrity of brain white matter tracts supporting language and emergent literacy skills.”

The Great Screen Scare

As a parent, it’s easy to read these kinds of stories and jump directly to the awful conclusion that I’ve messed up my kids’ white matter by giving them too much screen time. Despite my parenting-expert status, I still fall into that trap. And frankly, it’s ridiculous. My feelings of poor parenting guilt vis-à-vis screen time (and yours, too, dear reader) are wildly overblown. I know this because of my own research and conversations with child development experts, which all point to the same conclusion: Screen-time angst is largely spurred by moral panic.

Just gaze into the cold waters that run beneath all those hot screen time headlines. In the case of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital study, for instance, the sample size was only 47 children. Further, researchers noted that they could not link brain changes and reading scores directly to screen time. Finally, the study could not say what kind of long-term effects the changes in said white matter might have, or if there were any ways those effects could be reversed or mediated.

Barring those important caveats, it’s easy to panic. And panic is an excellent (if bluntly chaotic) motivator. Panic fuels our ability to feel shame and to shame others absent of reasonable thought. Panic helps us double down on our moral judgements. But it’s not particularly useful for parenting.

Still, the headlines keep coming. Just this week, non-profit Common Sense Media released their most recent report on children and screen media use. Among the primary findings was the following insight.

“Since 2017, the gap in screen use by income, race, and ethnicity has grown substantially and is largely affected by the growth in use of mobile media devices among lower-income and Black and Hispanic/Latinx families.”

Associated data showed a nearly two-hour difference in the amount of screen time between lower- and upper-income households. Children in higher-earning, predominantly white households spent considerably less time with screen media than poor kids of color.

When screen time is a moral panic, it’s easy to see how the statistics from Common Sense Media could be problematic. If screen time is bad, then aren’t the parents of kids who have more screen time bad too? And if those parents are already culturally sidelined for being poor and minorities, how much more damaging is the revelation of their children’s screen time habits?

How Did We Get Here?

The panic was born near-simultaneously with the invention of the uber-screen we know as television. In 1961, Wilbur Schramm, Director of the Institute for Communication Research at Stanford University, published the first-ever screen time investigation with his book Television in the Lives of Our Children: The Facts About the Effects of Television Based on Studies of Over 6,000 Children. In it, Schram worried about the degenerative effect television might have on children. He worried that kids exposed to too much television could become inured to wonders of life because:

“There is little they have not seen or done or lived through, and yet this is second-hand experience… When the experience itself comes it is watered down, for it has already been half-lived but never truly felt.”

Thirty years later, when I was a suburban kid in southwestern Colorado, television’s reputation had not much improved. I can still hear my parents’ constant refrains of “Don’t sit so close to the television!” and “That TV will rot your brain!” and “Stop being such a couch potato!” As a kid, my parents seemed to regard television in much the way Christians view Satan. Let your guard down and you’re pretty much doomed. Left unchecked, TV would leave a child fat, dumb, and blind. By the time I had kids, I’d done a fantastic job of internalizing that message.

Screens were further villainized with the release of the iPhone in 2007. I was in my early thirties at the time, and I remember dire warnings in the intervening years that attachment to those small pocket screens was causing people to isolate from each other and even fall into manholes. Kids were sexting. Drivers were distracted. Screens were evil.

And so my early parenting years were marked with a deep sense of self-loathing every time my baby boy became transfixed by a screen. Sometimes, though, that screen-enabled hypnotism was a relief because it meant that he was occupied, if only long enough for me to poop alone. Still, I worried. And I continued to worry until I interviewed child development researcher Celeste Kidd in 2018. Kidd is in charge of the Kidd Lab at UC Berkeley, and she has spent her career seeking insights into how babies develop essential human skills. She’s also a mother.

What the Studies Say

During our conversation, Kidd revealed that she had no problem giving her baby her phone to play with. I was shocked. Wasn’t that a bad thing? A dangerous act? A sure-fire way to arrest a baby’s development?

No, Kidd told me. “We do not have enough evidence to develop a strong opinion one way or the other.”

Kidd’s particular quibble with screen panic was that there were no high-quality longitudinal studies featuring an experimental group and a control group that could offer data on the effects of screens on children. Not to mention the fact that it would be incredibly hard to design that kind of experiment.

Her insight prompted me to start paying attention to the screen time studies that were available. And I found that in the aggregate, there really wasn’t any compelling evidence for panic. For every “white matter integrity” study, there was one suggesting that children’s language skills could benefit from high-quality children’s television programming, or that video conferencing with grandparents could be beneficial for kids. The argument for a moral screen panic simply didn’t exist.

Which brings me back to the Common Sense Media study.

I will say that in general I appreciate Common Sense Media and I love what the organization does. I’ve used their rating and review platform on many occasions to decide if a movie or show would be appropriate for my child. I’m also a fan of their mission to make digital media and the internet safer for kids. But I cast a bit more of a critical eye on their recent data.

Looking Beyond Stats

What feels implied in the analysis of the screen time habits for economically disadvantaged minority kids is that the discrepancy is somehow harmful. There is no evidence that it is. Instead, what the discrepancy points to is that poor kids of color may not live in environments where it’s safe to play outside without screens. The discrepancy points to the fact that without the opportunities given to wealthier Americans, economically burdened parents seek learning opportunities enabled by screens. The discrepancy may point to a simple need to keep kids occupied when both parents work long, irregular hours in low-paying jobs that make childcare inaccessible. Which is to say, the problem may not be screen time at all, rather the inequalities that disadvantaged communities of color are subject to every day.

We do know that many of the ills associated with screen time, like poor cognitive development and language skills, can also be linked to the quality of a parent’s interaction with a child. Babies learn from interacting with people. When parents interact with babies, they tend to grow just fine. And the interaction that parents offer can act as a mediating factor to any ill effects that screens might have.

And that’s what I believe is obfuscated by the moral panic built around screen time. The issue is not that children are using screens too much. It’s that parents aren’t interacting enough. If screens do anything truly harmful, it might simply come from drawing attention. The Common Sense figures aren’t about the screens. They are more likely about the fact that economically challenged families do not have as much time to interact with one another as they should.

If there is moral judgement to make, it’s that our society does not do its best to support every parent’s opportunity to spend time with their kid, whether that be playing, reading or even watching television.