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Screen Time Doesn’t Have to Mean Scream Time

Three tips for thinking about screen time.

Key points

  • COVID-19 and the pivot to online education and socialization for all ages amplified the battle of screen time.
  • Moderate to high screen time is not associated with delinquency, risky behaviors, sexual behaviors, substance abuse, or mental health issues.
  • The goal should not be to eliminate screen time but to moderate and control the use of screens.

The battle over screen time has raged for decades. Like all parenting decisions, although advice columns focused on what would help children best develop, underlying the arguments was a judgment of parent quality. The assumption was that good parents would read to their children, educate them, and provide all the necessary educational stimulation. Using videos was a cop-out. This led to arguments about whether all screen time is bad or if it is just some screen time is bad.

Twenty years ago, Baby Einstein videos gave parents a way to do both: occupy children so parents could take a shower and their children could grow into geniuses. While the Mozart Effect research on which Baby Einstein based its popularity is unreliable, the same search for educational screen time options continues.

COVID-19 and the pivot to online education and socialization for all ages amplified the battle of screen time. If the screen was the only way to access education and the outside world, how could time on the screen be restricted?

Anne Walters (2021) reviewed many studies demonstrating children's increased online entertainment usage in the past two years. As with everything else, Walters reminded us that returning to the old rules isn't possible and may not be appropriate.

Here are a few things to remember about how people interact with screen time as we develop new rules.

Moderation is the key.

While screen time is associated with some negative outcomes, research by Ferguson showed that these relationships are not always strong and that moderate to high amounts of screen time are not associated with delinquency, risky behaviors, sexual behaviors, substance abuse, reduced grades, or mental health problems.

Excessive screen time was related to increased depression and reduced grades, but not substance abuse, risky sex, or disordered eating. Similarly, Orben and Przybylski (2019) found "little evidence for substantial negative associations" between screen time and well-being. Given all of this, the goal should not be to eliminate screen time (an impossible goal, to be sure) but to moderate and control the use of screens.

Take control of screen time.

Some screen time is passive, with people consuming content without intention or volition. Exelmans and Van den Bulck (2017) found that binge-watching TV shows is one kind of screen time associated with negative consequences, such as sleep deprivation. Autoplay features on most streamers and YouTube facilitate binging. It is easy to take the path of least resistance and watch one more show or simply tap an icon and sit back and drink in the content.

So, as we think about new guidelines for interacting with online content, the first step is to remove automatic access and make accessing content more difficult than not accessing it.

  • Step one is to disable autoplay across all online content streamers. At the very least, this will force your child (and you) to think about whether or not you want to watch the next video and provides a natural ending point.
  • Step two, which is a bit more difficult, is to log out of streamer apps after each use and requires a login (including typing a complicated password) each time. Again, this creates a brief break in the automatic process of accessing content and forces viewers to think about whether or not they want to watch videos.
  • Step three is to decide how you will use screens. That is, create boundaries. Research by Twenge and Farley (2021) showed that portable screen use tends to interfere more with face-to-face interactions than stationary screens, partly because people carry portable screens into social environments. Because we carry them into bedrooms, portable screens are more likely to harm sleep. So, creating boundaries for how your child can use each screen can help them control how much they use each kind of screen.

Use screen time postively.

On the other side of passive screen time is active and engaged screen time, such as when playing a game with friends. Zhang and Kaufman (2017) found that participation in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) among older adults was associated with improved socio-emotional well-being and the development of meaningful online relationships.

If scrolling through social media leads to one-to-one chats with friends or playing a game leads to finding teammates and having a casual conversation outside of gameplay, then screen time can benefit well-being. So, as you set boundaries and coach your student on best practices, be aware that sometimes screens are a solution to problems.

Don't be afraid of screen time. It is neither all good nor all bad. Accept, control, and deploy screen time to meet goals.

* Note: These guidelines are not meant to apply to individuals experiencing screen compulsion.

References

Steele, K. M., Bass, K. E., & Crook, M. D. (1999). The mystery of the Mozart effect: Failure to replicate. Psychological Science, 10(4), 366-369.

Walters, A. S. (2021). Screen time and the pandemic: What is next?. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 37(12), 8-8.

Ferguson, C. J. (2017). Everything in moderation: moderate use of screens unassociated with child behavior problems. Psychiatric quarterly, 88(4), 797-805.

Zhang, F., & Kaufman, D. (2017). Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) and socio-emotional wellbeing. Computers in Human Behavior, 73, 451-458.

Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). "Screens, teens, and psychological well-being: Evidence from three time-use-diary studies": Corrigendum. Psychological Science, 30(8), 1254. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619862548

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