SEARCH online for “children’s screen time” and you’ll quickly get the sense that computer games and other screen-based entertainment are going to be the ruination of today’s young people.
Too much screen time wrecks brains, eyesight, language development, social skills, educational and job prospects and general physical health, as well as promoting obesity and suicide risk, you’ll be told.
“It’s ‘digital heroin’: how screens turn kids into psychotic junkies,” said one headline in the New York Post.
It’s not just media headlines. The Australian Department of Health in its advice on inactivity in children says “some sedentary activities are good for kids”: reading, listening to stories, arts and crafts.
“Some sedentary activities are not good for kids,” the advice continues. Predictably enough, watching television and computer games are on the bad list.
Don’t get me wrong. Too much of anything is going to be bad for us, and especially for the developing minds and bodies of children.
Various studies have suggested a link between screen time and childhood obesity, which has to be one of the serious health challenges of our age.
But does the evidence really support the black and white view that books equal good and screens equal bad?
The American Psychological Association (APA) has been subjected to some pretty powerful lobbying on both sides of the issue in recent weeks.
The lobby group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood sent an open letter to the APA in August 2018 asking it to censure psychologists in the consumer technology industry, who were alleged to be using “persuasive design” to increase children’s use of online products.
The letter, signed by several dozen researchers, said psychologists were engaged in “the unethical practice of … using hidden manipulation techniques to hook children on social media and video games”.
Research demonstrated a connection between children’s screen overuse and negative outcomes including “mental health struggles” and “poor academic performance”, the letter said.
Persuasive design techniques were helping to create “a generation of boys and young men who are overusing video games at the expense of obtaining real-world competencies, including a college education or job”.
The letter also cited research linking increased screen use to higher rates of depression and suicide in girls.
The APA response fell short of the public shaming of psychologists in the technology industry the letter writers may have hoped for.
The organisation was concerned about the increasing amount of time children spent on screens, a spokesman told the Washington Post. The letter would be referred to one of its committees.
This month, the debate took a new turn as an equally large group of scholars from around the world, including several Australians, wrote to the APA expressing concerns about the original letter, including that it contained factual inaccuracies and misrepresented the current state of research on screen time, cherry-picking findings to present a more damning picture than was warranted by the evidence.
The study apparently linking screen time to poor mental health outcomes in girls, for example, had found no effect in boys and only a small effect size in girls, which could have been a statistical anomaly, they said.
“This is part of a larger problem in psychology, whereby researchers use big data sets to find minuscule effects, then fail to put them in proper context when discussing them with the public.”
The allegation that psychologists who work for technology companies were deliberately manipulating children’s vulnerabilities was a serious one that should be supported by evidence, yet the original letter provided none, they went on.
“We are disappointed that, yet again, the public discourse around the effects of screen time and technology use are being marred by the use of emotionally evocative language, scaremongering, and a general lack of solid, open and reproducible evidence.”
And that’s the key. The APA’s latest correspondents are not claiming screen time has been comprehensively acquitted, but rather that the jury is still out.
They call for high quality, transparent, pre-registered studies, which is, after all, the standard we would expect in any other area of health.
Limiting children’s screen time makes sense for all sorts of reasons but, in the absence of good evidence, so does restraining the ever-present temptation to moral panic.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer and editor. She can be found on Twitter @janemccredie.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or MJA InSight unless that is so stated.
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