Kids and screens: the big issue of our time or a needless moral panic?
HAVE Smartphones Destroyed A Generation? asked a recent article by American author Jean M Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Her answer was yes, and that digital life was making teenagers unhappier and unhealthier. Twenge is just one of many experts reflecting on the current levels of anxiety around the use of tablets and mobile phones by the young.
Not only is there concern about teens and their screen use, there is even greater worry around the very young – toddlers born less with a silver spoon in their mouths than a silver Samsung in their hands.
What lessons, then, can we learn from the experience of today’s teens? And what are the potential issues for the next generation? Or is this all groundless moral panic?
According to a WHO report published earlier this year, a dramatic increase in screen time is putting the health of Scotland’s children at risk. Dr Jo Inchley of St Andrews University, was lead author on that report, which focused on the habits and lives of 11 to 15-year-olds. Does she think the same will apply to the next generation of children soon entering their teens? “Whatever we’re seeing in teenagers currently,” she says, “is likely to be all the more exaggerated in the next generation.”
What her team’s research has documented is that levels of computer and social media use have massively increased in Scotland over the last decade. “There are two main areas where that’s likely to affect young people,” she says. “One is mental health and wellbeing and the other area is around sedentary behaviour and the impact it has on their physical health.” The impact of the latter, she says, is very clear and well-researched. “There’s really good evidence to link screen time with negative health outcomes for young people.” However, around the issue of mental health, there is mixed evidence, she adds. “There is lots more we need to understand not just about how long young people are spending on digital media but what they’re doing. We know that high levels of use are putting young people at risk of anxiety and depression and low self-esteem, but we also know that social media is highly beneficial in terms of social interaction.”
Inchley believes far more research is needed, not into how much time young people are spending on screens but what activities they are doing there. “What apps are they using, who are they speaking to? There’s really interesting research, for example, that shows that passive use, where you’re just viewing things online, is more problematic and risky than active use where you’re communicating with people and interacting with people.”
AGENERATIONAL shift has occurred even among today’s young – so that those reaching adulthood now didn’t get smartphones until they were at least 12 years old, whereas current toddlers are frequently being handed them to play with while in their buggies. So rapid has the technological revolution been that there are differences between children in the same school depending on their age. Today’s 17-year-olds, for instance, for the most part started their digital lives with old-style phones on which they could mostly only text and call. But most 14-year-olds today would have started high school with a smartphone in their pocket. When 17-year-old Caitlin Munn, for instance, got her first phone at 10 years old, it was a basic old-style mobile. Several years later, when her younger sister, Naomi, got her first it was a smartphone. By the time Naomi was 12, her mother was taking it off her at night because she realised that Naomi and friends were snapchatting.
Naomi observes that back then her mother was right to worry. She’s now aware of the risks of depression and mental health problems, but when she was younger, she said, “you just think of it as part of pop culture, or fashion. If you’re young and impressionable it can really have an impact”.
Their mother, Hilary Brown, describes Naomi’s generation as the “guinea pig generation”, who grew up in “the eye of the storm”. “I’m not saying there should be age recommendations but pre-teens and early teens are not necessarily ready for what’s out there.”
What’s revealing is that teenagers for the most part believe that access to screens should be limited for younger children. They worry over the impact of such technology on younger siblings. Caitlin Munn, for instance, says: “When I have children I wouldn’t want them to be screenoriented until they were in their teenage years.”
Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Millington adds: “I was part of one of the very last generations to grow up without the tech. I would read books, I would play. We would have water fights in the streets. That doesn’t happen anymore. I watch my siblings grow up, and they’re in the tech age, and it’s very disconcerting to see. I already feel like one of those older generations whining about the younger ones. And it does worry me, because I’m thinking, where’s your creativity? Why aren’t you playing pretend?”
MEANWHILE, screen time has become the hot parenting issue of our time. Some parents try to hold off giving their children smartphones or tablets while they are very young. Some restrict screen time. Some allow their children free rein.
So what is the right age to let your child have access to digital technology? And what, if any, restrictions you should place on screen time? One of the problems is advice varies massively. In 2016, leading experts called on the Government to introduce national guidelines on the use of screens. In January, another group of scientists wrote an open letter asking that such guidelines be based on evidence rather than hyperbole.
Among them was Professor Lydia Plowman of Edinburgh University, who says: “I prefer not to provide specific guidelines on screen time. In my view, for young children it’s not so much about the amount of screen time but the content that counts and the circumstances in which it’s being used.”
Inchley, who herself has children of eight and six years old, describes navigating this issue as a “big challenge”. “Right from the word go they have been surrounded by digital technology, and it’s a constant battle for parents to manage. It’s not helpful to see screens as bad, or remove things from young people’s lives because that’s the new social context that young people are living in, this digital world. So we have to understand it, not just resist it.”
She describes her own practices with regards to her children: “They don’t have phones yet, so it’s more about games and watching videos and so on. From a family point of view it’s about getting a balance. I’ve also observed that when they spend too much time on screens it affects their behaviour. So I recognise the need for a limit. It definitely triggers something.”
Fears have grown over the effect screen time has on health and wellbeing