The Effects of Screens on Kids? It's Complicated!

We long for answers about the effects of screens on kids, but these are elusive.

Posted May 04, 2019

Pixabay/Pexels
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the effects of screens on kids (and the rest of us). Given how popular smartphones, gaming, streaming media, and social media are, they are certainly worthy of research attention. We want answers, right? How much is screen time is too much? At what age should you get your child a smartphone? More broadly, are screens good or bad for kids? A better question is when are they beneficial and when can they be harmful? On a related note, how harmful...or beneficial...are they?

Some Downsides of Screen Time

Practically every parents struggles with screen-related challenges. Let's only consider "typical" screen use here. We are not talking about more extreme cases (e.g., a 10-year-old boy viewing porn for 3 hours a day, texting while driving). Do any of the following sound familiar?:

  • Josh, a 14-year-old boy, wants to play Fortnite every spare moment and is probably clocking close to 20/hours per week during the school year. He sneaks extra gaming time in on school nights and is often sleep deprived. His grades have dropped from mostly As to Bs and Cs. Josh used to have a number of hobbies and hang out with his friends in-person in the neighborhood. Now, nearly all of his interactions with friends are online within Fortnite. His parents' attempts to limit his game time result in arguments and ill-feelings. Their relationship has deteriorated.
  • Four-year-old Jeremy tantrums every time "screen time" ends. Sometimes he's literally in a tug-of-war with his parents over the iPad. 
  • Travis, an 8-year-old boy, complains almost constantly of being bored and says "there's nothing to do" unless he's on a screen. He shuns going outdoors to play with neighborhood friends. 
  • Brittany, a 16-year-old girl, is on her phone and social media almost constantly. The phone is always in hand and barely a minute goes by without her checking it, taking a selfie, or posting about something. She is obsessed with getting "likes" to her Instagram posts and has a lot of emotions around whether she receives them. Any satisfaction she gains from popular posts is fleeting. She has trouble getting her homework done efficiently because she is Snapchatting with her friends all the while. 

Are Screens to Blame?

While some alarmists want to claim that screens are destroying a generation, thankfully, research does not support that. There is evidence that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are going up in teens and young adults. However, we can't just point the finger at screens as the cause. Life is more complicated than that. For instance, although suicide rates are going up among young people, they are going up for pretty much every other age demographic as well. Also, when we look at suicide rates over time, you might notice that suicide rates were higher for most age groups before smartphones hit the scene (2007). 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Some Upsides of Screen Time

In the scenarios I gave above, we have to keep in mind that this is an incomplete picture. We all, of course, experience the many benefits of screen use. Just looking at kids, consider:

  • Friends Kevin and Jacob, both age 10, get exercise and great fun out of roaming the neighborhood together catching Pokemon in Pokemon Go. Their friendship is strengthened though this shared experience. 
  • Sophia, age 15, is passionate about environmental causes. She uses the Internet to learn more about how to protect the environment and uses social media to connect with others and take action in her community around this cause. 
  • Finn, age 9, loves Roblox. He's learned to create his own games and upload them so others can play. These experiences have ignited a passion to learn programming.
  • Claire, age 6, is using an app on the iPad to practice her writing skills. Since the app gamifies writing, she enjoys the practice and her writing skills are improving. 

Even in my "downsides" examples, those kids are likely experiencing many benefits of screens as well. Just highlighting the negatives doesn't give the complete picture. Most of us experience a mixture of the pros and cons of screen use, and it's impossible to have one without the other. 

Immediate Effects Vs. Overall Impact

A recent epiphany I had after watching Nobel prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman's TED talk, which I covered in my last blog on The Truth About the Effects of Screens, is that we are often talking about two different types of effects. As parents, we see some of the short-term effects of screens (e.g., not spending much time outdoors, mood and behavioral changes), but it's hard to assess the overall impact of screen use on life satisfaction As Kahneman describes, the happiness (or unhappiness) of the "experiencing" self (i.e., in the moment, short-term) is not highly related to the overall life satisfaction (or unhappiness) of the "remembering" self (e.g., big-picture, long-term). Thus, it's entirely possible for screens to affect mood and behavior in the short-term without affecting overall life satisfaction much, if any, for most people in the long-term. 

This idea doesn't just apply to screens. Think of the many books and restaurants that you've enjoyed over the years. Alternatively, think of some of the disappointments you've had over the years—a lost job, a flat tire, a trip to the beach in which it rained the whole time. While such experiences might contribute to temporary pleasure or displeasure, they don't really affect our overall life satisfaction all that much. 

The Parallels With Advertising

Advertising, especially on our screens, works very well indeed. Media advertising in the U.S. is projected to hit $240 billion in 2019. Google and Facebook make their billions largely on advertisements. Even those costly Super Bowl ads pay off for companies. Thus, our consumer behavior is affected by advertisements, endorsements, and branding. They get us to buy more stuff. Interestingly, ads that get us to buy more stuff sell us on the promise that "if you buy ____, you'll be happier." But, in line with Kahneman's discourse on happiness, the momentary pleasures we gain from buying stuff don't translate into increases in life satisfaction. In fact, if buying stuff really led to increased life satisfaction we wouldn't need to keep buying so much stuff! Yet, we keep buying into to this delusion. 

While advertisements for Coke and Pepsi might get us to buy more of their sugared water and lead to some temporary pleasure because of the intense sweetness, drinking the sugared water isn't going to improve our overall life satisfaction. As we rot our teeth out, change our metabolism, and gain weight, a strong argument could be made that buying unhealthy food and beverages increases short-term, "experiencing self" happiness but results in lower life-satisfaction. Tooth decay, dental pain and bills, and health problems related to obesity can decrease life satisfaction. Over time, our experiencing self begins to suffer from the health consequences of our past experiencing self's actions. To the extent that obesity shortens lives, we can say that overall life satisfaction suffers too because, well, our lives are shortened. 

The Bigger Picture

To be clear, I'm not saying that screen use decreases life satisfaction by shortening our lives. Well, with distracted driving from phone use, it might just do that in a direct fashion. However, I do think we have to be mindful that our screen use doesn't affect our life satisfaction in more subtle, insidious ways. This could include by being too sedentary and chronic sleep loss (e.g., staying up late on social media, watching Netflix). It is extremely difficult to capture such effects in research. Thus, my default advice is to strive for life balance. This means we ensure that we are effectively meeting our physiological and psychological needs and that we don't let screen use get in the way of meeting those needs. Rather, if we use them mindfully, we can potentially use screens to meet these needs more effectively. 

The whole controversy regarding how we are being affected by our screens speaks to a much bigger and broader issue: How should we live to have a fulfilling life? How do we reduce our suffering and improve our life satisfaction? I look forward to tackling these broader questions in future posts, as I'm writing my next book on this topic.