Kids and screens: the big is­sue of our time or a need­less moral panic?

Sunday Herald - - CULTURE - BY VICKY AL­LAN

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

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