THE FUTURE OF SCREEN TIME
Nathalie Marquez Courtney on why grown-ups need to reassess their own screen habits
Distracted, disengaged, irritable – and that’s just us. NATHALIE MARQUEZ COURTNEY explores why it’s time to reflect on the adult screen time conversation while we’re busy monitoring the kids.
“I’m cooking meth in the basement,” deadpans a sweetlooking ten-year-old at the family dinner table. “Great idea kiddo, that’s why you’re so popular at school,” replies her dad, not looking up from scrolling on his phone.
The sketch – starring Will Ferrell – has racked up over 150,000 YouTube views. It’s part of #Device Free Dinners, a campaign by US non-profit Common Sense Media that’s endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and hopes to encourage the whole family to get off their devices and back into real life during mealtimes.
Closer to home, last year’s Start campaign from the HSE came with similar encouragements, and even a downloadable “play pact” designed to inspire both parents and children to put away their screens and be more active. Both campaigns highlighted a marked shift in the screen time conversation: it’s not just about the kids any more.
For almost as long as there have been screens, there have been debates about how much children are using them. Kids have always been the earliest adopters; in 1950s America, children’s programming accounted for more time on network television than any other category, with advertisers spending $400,000 (over $4 million today) per week to reach them.
First come the screens, then the studies, followed by scaremongering headlines and admonishments (from the age-old “TV
will rot your brain” to the newer “Don’t let them become YouTube zombies”) and endless debates in the media. Screen time has quickly become a national conversation, with “how much is too much?” being the million dollar question. “Technology plays a big role in family life, and it has evolved over a relatively short period of time,” says Alex Cooney, co-founder and CEO of Cyber Safe Ireland (cybersafeireland.org).
Depending on where you sit on the screen time spectrum, it’s either not as bad as you worry it is, or much worse than you realise. “We’ve a lot of work to do trying to establish good social norms,” says Alex. “It’s not to say, by any means, that children shouldn’t have access. But we need to get to a place where parents are fully aware of the responsibilities that come with allowing a child to have a device or access to the online world.”
Recently, we’ve begun looking more holistically at how devices are used in the home – and that means parents too. How can we hope to raise kids with good digital habits when we find ourselves permanently attached to our phones, firing off a quick email while at the dinner table or mindlessly scrolling Instagram at midnight?
“If we’re trying to promote a healthy balance for our children, we need to examine ourselves,” says Alex. “There are now tools that let us see how much time we’re spending on our devices and on social media, and for so many adults I’m speaking to, it’s a real wake-up call.”
GRADUALLY, THEN SUDDENLY
The stats back up what we already know: Screens are everywhere. A recent study by Cyber Safe Ireland found that 79 per cent of Irish eight-year-olds already own a smart device, and almost half are using social media and messaging apps, with 10 per cent being online for more than four hours every day. In the UK, a whopping 99 per cent of parents of three-to-four-year-olds say their kids spend over 14 hours a week watching TV. In the US, the average age to begin “regular” screen use has gone from four years old in the 1970s to just four months old now.
Of course, we grown-ups are not much better. A 2018 study by Deloitte showed that 20 per cent of Irish adults check their phones within five minutes of waking up, with the average Irish phone user picking up their device 55 times in a day.
Without us really realising, devices have crept into every corner of our lives. They are so hugely useful in such a vast variety of ways that the lines become easily blurred and it becomes hard to spot where practical use ends and idle browsing begins.
These addictive little gadgets are doing more than just keeping us hooked on Candy Crush: Screens are slowly but surely eroding something very fundamental and primal. For centuries, our ancestors gathered around hearths at night, listening to stories together
“79 per cent of Irish eight-yearolds own a smart device, and almost half are already using social media and messaging apps.”
and sharing anecdotes about their day. Even when TV came along, it was more often than not a shared experience. Now our faces are lit not by a single fire, but by the flickering glow of individual devices; we are lost in our own tiny digital worlds, and the end result is that we don’t share as much, talk as much or pick up on as much when we’re together.
This can have huge consequences for every member of the family. Research has shown it impacts the way babies and toddlers learn language (tuned-out parents don’t pick up on as many cues or engage in as many back and forths with their babies), the number of playground accidents (one 2014 research paper showed 10 per cent more accidents in kids under six in areas where 3G – and, by extension, smartphone use – was rolled out), rising levels of anxiety and depression amongst teens and less intimacy among couples. “Device use has crept up on us, without us really understanding the ramifications,” says Alex.
UK-based parenting coach, mum and blogger Eloise Rickman (fridabemighty.com) decided she needed to dig deep and examine her own habits when she was designing her online course, Making Sense of Screens. “My screen time wasn’t terrible, but it was certainly more than I wanted it to be, and I was realising that it was really impacting on how present I was being with my daughter,” she says. “I’d be playing with her, and then there’d be a ping from my phone, and I would feel drawn to go and check it. I was noticing that in any sort of gaps I had – say going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea – I’d be pulling out my phone.”
Because devices are so ubiquitous and the pressure to be always online is so intense (who doesn’t appreciate a speedy email reply?), we’ve begun normalising our device use. “Many of us have these low-level compulsions or addictions to our phones,” says Eloise. “But the word ‘addiction’ sounds really nasty, so we don’t say that.”
“But how on earth can I be a positive role model to my daughter and hope that she will have a positive relationship with screens as she gets older, if all she sees is how I’m checking my phone all the time?”
Eloise experimented with restricting her Instagram use to just 20 minutes per day, Monday to Friday (“when added up, that’s still three days of your year on Instagram,” she laughs) and she feels so much better for it. “I have a lovely community on Instagram and have really enjoyed it as a platform, but it was taking me away from my real-life relationships, and for no good reason.”
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
And while screen time has been linked in a very causal way to things like increased levels of obesity, or increased anxiety from social media, Eloise warns that saying screen time as a whole is bad is not the answer. “The research doesn’t really bear that out,” she says. “It’s much more nuanced in terms of how people are actually spending their time online, and whether it’s active or passive.” Her course aims to give parents guilt-free guidance to help them evaluate not just the quantity of screen time, but the quality. “It’s about looking at time spent on games, or watching TV versus time spent doing other things. If they’re watching quality programming, it doesn’t have a negative impact on them.”
As with everything in life, the key is balance. Modelling the behaviour we want to see is the first step in ensuring our children have a healthy, positive relationship with screens. “You can’t tell your child to go and be outside, go play a game, go do some sport, or go read a book if we don’t do these things ourselves,” says Eloise.
Helping children develop a wholesome relationship with technology is a crucial life skill. But ensuring there are open conversations and healthy limits for the whole family will leave children better equipped when the inevitable time comes for them to have more privacy and independence. The buck doesn’t stop at parents either – Alex feels it’s vital that governments work to help educate parents about the importance of establishing good social norms. “We’re going to need something along the lines of the road safety campaign but for online safety,” she says. “We need stronger regulation and greater accountability at national level.”
“Just like how when we teach our children to cross the road, we’re preparing them for a time when they’ll have to make that judgment themselves,” says Alex. “We’re going to need to prepare them for the online world in the same way.”
“Our devices are so useful in such a variety of ways that the lines become blurred and it becomes hard to spot where practical use ends and idle browsing begins.”