The webinar was set up as a debate, a transatlantic one between psychology Prof. Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics and health sciences Assoc. Prof. Kristi Adamo at the University of Ottawa. They were asked to talk about “screen time” by their hosts at the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity – whether it’s good, bad or both.
Dr. Livingstone was asked to argue on the “pro side,” whatever that meant (she started off saying it’s important to acknowledge “there’s a lot we don’t know”), and Dr. Adamo on the “anti side.” The latter cited a number of clinical studies showing positive correlations between screen use and negative effects on early childhood.
You’ll have to judge for yourself who “won.” Because I have a bias that I’m going to be totally transparent about, here. It’s a bias against seeing children as an undifferentiated mass of human beings, their screen use in isolation from all the other activities and interactions of their everyday lives, and “screen time” only in terms of potential harm.
Content and context
“Screens are irrelevant,” Livingstone said in the Q&A part toward the end. She wasn’t saying they’re not a presence in family life or a factor in children’s wellbeing. They’re just far from the only factor, she found in the “Parenting for a Digital Future” (P4DF) study she recently conducted by visiting 73 London families representing a wide range of socio-economic status, ethnicity and family composition. It’s that screen use “is generally the smallest part of an explanation for any problem children face, whether it’s problems with sleep, obesity or whatever else.”
Obviously parents deserve guidance on what all children need: healthy amounts of sleep, physical activity, social interaction and a nutritional diet. The question needs to be how to ensure our children get appropriate levels of those things, not how to reduce screen time.
The screen time questions, Livingstone pointed out, concern the content on the screen and the context of its use. These are so hard for research to capture – the activity of the moment (solitary play, viewing with a sibling before supper, playing with a friend on a playdate) in the place where it happens (home, a bus, the car on a road trip, a friend’s house, an elderly relative’s house, an augmented reality game in a park), much less the effects. And how could looking at a watch saying anything about any of this?
“Screen use is not always sedentary, passive, anti-social, harmful,” Livingstone said. When there is a problem, such as not enough physical activity, what are the conditions in the child’s life? Few safe places to play outside in a rough neighborhood? Little play space in homes occupied by a big family? People coming and going for jobs during the time when a child should be sleeping? Sometimes a screen is a “life line,” Livingstone said, when there’s a screaming baby or an ailing elder to care for or a meal to prepare.
Space to figure it out
Even when screens aren’t a life line, we can’t forget the many things a screen can be for people: the new encyclopedia, the new board game, the new music player, the new map, the new TV, the new novel, or at least a new “place” where a novel can be found and read. As a child, “I had my nose in a book for hours and hours and hours, and I was pretty sedentary and pretty solitary,” Livingstone said, referring to social activity and physical activity, two of early childhood’s basic needs, “and I grew up to be a professor, so it’s not all bad.”
Exactly. In our concerns for our children’s wellbeing, are we predetermining or even controlling who they will be? I’m not just talking about how safe or successful they’ll be but also who they’ll turn out to be. Isn’t it good to give them some space to figure some things out for themselves, even with some things, media and experiences that are unfamiliar to us because we didn’t grow up with them?
Restriction isn’t always good. For one thing, we know from the research that risk and resilience go hand-in-hand, so we actually don’t want to remove all risk from our children’s lives, including their online lives. When they become grownups, they’ll be safer on many levels if they’ve learned how to deal with adversity and developed some resilience.
A crucial question has emerged: Has this whole discourse on screen time subtly, gradually laid not only too much guilt but also too much of the burden on parents? Has it snuck a growing propensity for control into our best parenting intentions, or at least into societies’ messages about what “good parenting” is? Scholars have even identified a “control paradigm,” an “adult-centered logic of control,” as opposed to a logic of collaboration on what’s best for our children and their future lives.
Parents & parenting are changing
At the beginning of her presentation, Livingstone said that, in their research, she and her P4DF co-author Alicia Blum-Ross found that “parents are acquiring new technology and embedding it in family lives at a rapid rate.” So they asked the parent(s) in each family they visited why, given all the concerns about “screen time,” it was so embedded in their family life?
What they found was that “parents feel the digital future is important, that it’s not going away, that children must somehow learn, cope and thrive within the digital world and – more than that – parents themselves are now digital natives.” That’s another thing I find we don’t think about much. We think and talk plenty about how fast technology is changing. We don’t talk much about how parents are changing. How more and more millennials, or “digital natives,” are themselves parents bringing to their households the safeguards, strategies and coping mechanisms they developed as they grew up with digital technology.
“Two-thirds of parents in my survey used the Internet to learn and to support their child’s learning,” Livingstone said. “For many, digital media offer a form of family togetherness…a way of talking about the world and their interests and a really vital way of connecting with friends and family…. Many are using digital activities as a kind of space in which they can impart their values, their interests, their expectations of their children, including discipline, and frankly it’s just a way of getting through the multiple demands of the day.”
A rich, nuanced picture of family life in the digital age, right? This is possible for parents everywhere.
SIDEBAR: Solid advice for parents
It’s not a “digital parenting” guide. Instead, DigiLitEY, a large group of researchers in the UK and EU, created a guide for “Smart Parenting in the Digital Age.” They “designed it to be supportive and enabling rather than … telling parents always to look at their watch” for an update on “screen time,” said Sonia Livingstone, one of the many researchers whose work helped create this guide. Here are the guide’s five sections and her descriptions of them (in some cases paraphrased):
- Understand your child’s digital world. A lot of the studies don’t think about what parents themselves know and how they can draw on that knowledge. A lot of the advice assumes parents are ignorant and children know better (not true; see findings from the EU Kids Online research project way back in 2011). Many parents are using digital technology and social media for work, etc.
- Shape your child’s online experience. “We wanted to recognize the incredible diversity in families’ digital practices … find ways to invite families to feel empowered around sharing children’s digital experiences according to their knowledge and interests … trying to remove the idea that parents have to do the same as everyone else, and if they don’t they’re deviant and it’s problematic.”
- Share, learn and play together. “I enjoyed finding this in the research. We’re constantly being told screens are tearing everyone apart.” Some. But more often, families are looking for these opportunities to share, and if they are sharing, then the children are getting what the developmental psychologists want them to have – interaction with people of different ages, the opportunities for everyone to respond, interact and engage with each other. Families “are looking for these opportunities.”
- Stay healthy and safe online. “Of course this is important. I point again to questions about context and content. By and large, it’s not the amount of time [for all families], it’s balance in life, the particular types of content and contact (violence, etc.). Of course parents need to keep an eye on it. But it gets down to the particularities of the modes of engagement….”
- Stay in touch with digital developments. “Staying up to date can be a plus not a negative.” She suggested it’s good to keep parenting around digital media embedded in everyday life, not some sort of special “talk” about something separate from everything else. “The digital is here to stay. And there are many pluses and missed opportunities yet to be explored, and somehow [emphasis hers] that’s the direction we need to be going in.”
This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on the latest research and commentary on children’s “screen time” use. Next: Zooming in on the challenges of researching screen use
- By Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross, the third chapter in their book Parenting for a Digital Future: How hopes and fears about technology shape our children’s lives, coming this June from Oxford University Press
- “Why Talking about ‘Screen Time’ Is the Wrong Conversation,” an interview at EdSurge (February 2020) with author Lisa Guernsey, director of the teaching, learning and tech program at the think tank New America in Washington, D.C.
- More from Livingstone: “Can We Realise Children’s Rights In A Digital World?” at Medium.com (January 2020) and her post in the London School of Economics P4DF blog about “the tipping point in the mounting problems with the screen time debate” (February 2019)
- “Children & Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report,” a 2018 report from Ofcom, UK telecommunications regulator (Dr. Livingstone served in the report’s working group on children 0-8)