Screen Time - A plague within your houses? - Digital Literacy Dover

Friday 11 January 2019

Screen Time - A plague within your houses?

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) via Quartz

From a bucket of water to a bicycle, any tool can be used maliciously or marvellously, the same is true for screen time as it is for eating potatoes, they are both potentially very good for you, but not if that's all you do.

One big difference being that we don't see articles circulated from time to time on the web fretting about potatoes, framed in the frantic, panicked tones of a 21st Century crisis, which we do about screen time, articles like this*.

In the face of opinions like that, some would ask how on earth we can justify all the iPads we provide for our young learners in the Infant school, 2:1 in K1, and an iPad for every child in K2, Grade 1 to Grade 3,  and a laptop for every child in Grades 4 and 5. The problem is these articles that expect us to 'ban' our students from screen use, generally make the mistake of burying alternative perspectives, and are usually founded on a dubious judgement back in the 20th Century (1999), by the American Academy of Pediatrics that discouraged television viewing for children younger than 2, citing research on brain development that showed this age group’s critical need for “direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers.” They have since (2015) updated their report, acknowledging that things have changed significantly since their original judgement, however they still unfortunately, and impractically uniformly discourage passive media use, on any type of screen, for young children.

What I'd like to do here is just to provide some balance to the argument, sure the AAP have their opinion, but there are plenty of other respected, and I would argue more reasonable and more practical perspectives regarding screen time out there, below I share just a handful. If you know of any others, please feel free to post them in the comments below.

Common Sense Media

Lumping all screens into one category is not helpful. "Screen time is a really enticing measure because it's simple – it's usually described as the number of hours a day using screen-based technology. But it's completely meaningless," says Pete Etchells at Bath Spa University, UK, who studies the effects of video games on behaviour. "It doesn't say anything about what you're using that time for."

The challenge for parents and teachers, Robb says, “is to select the videos, games, and devices that have a real, positive developmental impact—and use them in ways that promote growth.”

New Scientist

Children benefit from the right sort of screen time.

What is becoming clear is that it's not the technologies themselves we should be worried about, but how they are used and how people interact with them. The advantages seen in the school environment can be translated into the home – if you choose your children's digital distraction wisely.

A lot of it is common sense. Don't unthinkingly hand over your device. There are educational apps whose benefits are backed up by research.

Five hours sitting in front of the TV is not the same as 5 hours of some TV, a couple of hours playing on Dance Dance Revolution or some other kind of active game, followed by a Skype session with a grandparent.


This [The advice from the AAP] hard and fast two-hour policy, beaten into parents’ brains by their pediatricians, troubles me and many others partly because it was last updated in 2011 before the astounding boom of tablets, smartphones and touch screens among both kids and adults. The policy warnings had focused very reasonably on TV and its clear long-term harms to healthy development in kids under two—especially harmful when passively watching non-interactive, non-educational TV.
But such traditional passive TV watching, while still the dominant form of media consumption for most children, is rapidly becoming meaningless for many. Clearly, an interactive video game that parents and toddlers are playing together or watching family vacation videos on a smartphone can have huge value compared to zombie-like staring at an episode of Spongebob—these kinds of shows are shown in studies to harm a young child’s executive functioning, a prefrontal brain skill set including memory, attention, and setting goals.

Not all screens are equal, and guidelines need to be updated to reflect these differences.
The policy also doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground: a recent survey of parents by Common Sense Media shows that toddlers under two are spending almost one hour a day using screen media anyway.

I still generally agree with most of the AAP’s family media plan advice, especially no TV ever in bedrooms and no screens at certain times of the day, including during meals, and screen time limits depending on age. With children under two, I definitely believe that screen time should never be spent alone: kids always benefit more from any activity when parents are playing along.

The Atlantic

The 2011 [AAP] report mentioned “smart cell phone” and “new screen” technologies, but did not address interactive apps. Nor did it broach the possibility that has likely occurred to those 90 percent of American parents, queasy though they might be: that some good might come from those little swiping fingers.

Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them.

April 2010, when the iPad was released. iPhones had already been tempting young children, but the screens were a little small for pudgy toddler hands to navigate with ease and accuracy. Plus, parents tended to be more possessive of their phones, hiding them in pockets or purses. The iPad was big and bright, and a case could be made that it belonged to the family. Researchers who study children’s media immediately recognized it as a game changer.


The 2017 "The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a Digital World" report is a comprehensive look from UNICEF at the different ways digital technology is affecting children, identifying dangers as well as opportunities.

Too many news articles share evidence from studies that are methodologically weak or exaggerate or misrepresent the evidence provided.

For most children, underlying issues – such as depression or problems at home – have a greater impact on health and happiness than screen time.

Without consensus on screen time, it is important for parents, policymakers, researchers and the media not to jump to conclusions about what is healthy or unhealthy digital use. Considering the full context of a child's life – together with an emphasis on content and experiences rather than screen time – may prove more useful for understanding the effects of digital connectivity on children's well-being.

Rather than restricting children’s digital media use, more attentive and supportive mediation by parents and educators holds the most promise for enabling children to draw maximum benefit and minimum risk from connectivity. More attention should be given to the content and activities of children’s digital experiences – what they are doing online and why – rather than strictly to how much time they spend in front of screens.

Considering the full context of a child’s life – together with an emphasis on content and experiences rather than screen time – may prove more useful for understanding the effects of digital connectivity on children’s well-being.

The American Academy of Pediatrics

In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete. The public needs to know that the Academy’s advice is science-driven, not based merely on the precautionary principle.

Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects. Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning.

Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH)

The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.

Evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children's screen time overall.

Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.

There is a little evidence that any specific intervention can be applied across the population to reduce screen time. We have developed four key questions for families to use as a guide to examine their screen time:

  1. Is screen time in your household controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
If a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue.

Touch screens change everything... 

Previously, young children had to be shown by their parents how to use a mouse or a remote, and the connection between what they were doing with their hand and what was happening on the screen took some time to grasp. But with the iPad, the connection is obvious, even to toddlers. Touch technology follows the same logic as shaking a rattle or knocking down a pile of blocks: the child swipes, and something immediately happens. A “rattle on steroids,” is what Buckleitner calls it. “All of a sudden a finger could move a bus or smush an insect or turn into a big wet gloopy paintbrush.” To a toddler, this is less magic than intuition. At a very young age, children become capable of what the psychologist Jerome Bruner called “enactive representation”; they classify objects in the world not by using words or symbols but by making gestures—say, holding an imaginary cup to their lips to signify that they want a drink. Their hands are a natural extension of their thoughts.

* If you're going to read that article, make sure you read these two responses to it as well:

Research Literacy vs Scare Columns 

Critical literacy will help readers navigate through broad claims that appear to be scientific in nature, but actually misrepresent facts and findings. Outlets such as The Huffington Post can provide important, accessible, and digestible information to parents as they try to navigate this complex world.

Why the Research Behind Banning Devices is Flawed

The research cited in the Rowan piece and the many other 'clickbait' articles like it is so unsupportive of her claims, it seems possible that the real motive behind these articles is to test the reader gullibility. If readers dig a little deeper, they'll find the truth.

The research focuses mainly on passive television consumption and video games that are either simple or for mature audiences. Much of it also is focused, not on pre-teens, but rather on teens and adults. The research shows a dearth of findings around the type of technology use in which the overwhelming majority of children engage.

Discerning educators and parents: Take a look at the research. Decide for yourself. I've collated over 60 articles here (and counting) which I update regularly, happy reading!

Alternatively the 'Their Own Devices' podcast has a very balanced take on this topic, there's bound to  be an episode or two in there that will be of interest.

It's not about screens, it's about time.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Screen Time (BBC)

Professor Andrew Przybylski, University of Oxford


  1. Hi Mr McHuge,

    I am a Dover campus parent with kids in G4. Have a question on google hangout vs discord. Would like to know which is better for using if we want them to chat in a safe environment . Can I email you for more background ?

    1. Hi, the short answer is that your kids can't use Discord until they are at least 13 years old. At that point you might want to consider it as an option. Until then they can use Google Hangouts to learn how to use instant messaging appropriately and effectively. Feel free to email me via my username: smc

    2. I meant to add, for kids over 13 years of age, this looks like a great platform to use, but make sure you read through their parental guidance carefully, it's well written and well considered: