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The "Real" Harm of Screen Time?

The "real" harm caused by screens might be hidden in plain sight.

Source: monkeybusinessimages/iStock

There has been much written about how screens are affecting us - including by me! Given that screens are so ubiquitous, and we are spending a LOT of time on them, it's important to understand their impact on us. This is particularly true for children and teens, who seem quite attached to their devices. Honestly, though, many adults struggle with putting their phones down about as much as teens.

One would be hard-pressed to find identify the introduction of any new technology (e.g., the automobile, radio, television) that changed the way that we communicated, socialized, sought information, and entertained ourselves so profoundly in such a short amount of time as the smartphone. When it comes to the importance of studying the effects of our screens, there is a clear consensus that this is a worthy endeavor. It's how they are affecting us that is still up for debate.

Do Screens Cause Us Harm?

A number of researchers, psychologists, and parenting experts have written at length about the many dangers of smartphones and social media. These include Dr. Jean Twenge (with her article Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? and her book, iGen), Dr. Sherry Turkle (MIT professor and author of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation) and Dr. Nicholas Kardaras (with his NY Post article, It's 'digital heroin': How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies and his book, Glow Kids). You might have seen or heard about the documentary Screenagers, which details the many dangers of screens. It's beyond the scope of this blog to provide a literature view, but there have been quite a number of studies in which researchers have found various negative effects of screen use.

Yet, there are a number of researchers, such as Dr. Chris Ferguson and Dr. Andrew Przybylski who have not found such negative effects or, at least when they do, such effects are very mild. For example, Dr. Amy Orben and Dr. Przybylski recently published a study using the same large scale social data sets (n = 355,358) that Dr. Twenge used to support the dangers of screen time. Using more sophisticated and comprehensive statistical techniques, Drs. Orben and Przybylski found that only a paltry .4% of the variation in adolescent well-being can be explained by screen use. I've speculated that at least some of the contradictory findings might be because many of the short-term harms attributed to screens don't really undermine life satisfaction in the broader sense.

A Much-Needed Revolution in Psychology

The debates over the effects of screen time are actually subsumed under a broader problem within the social sciences. We are at the beginning of a revolution in the social sciences due, in part, to a replication crisis. In short, much of what we thought we knew to be "true" in psychology is not. Efforts to replicate many landmark studies have fallen flat. Some of these problems might be because biases on the part of the researchers, publication biases, statistical shortcomings, poorly designed studies, cherry-picking results, p-hacking, ego, self-delusion, and blindspots. While the factors contributing to the replication crisis are varied, the aggregate effect is that shadows now loom over the many claims that psychologists have made. Can we trust the psychological sciences?

What Are We to Believe?

Given some conflicting findings in the research, just what are we supposed to do about screen time? Nothing? Set and enforce rigid limits on screen time for our kids? If you are parent, mixed messages and recommendations to "wait until there is more/better research" just fall flat. This is all unfolding before our eyes at such a breakneck pace, we just can't keep up. Many of us see our kids glued to their screens, staying up late on their devices, and eschewing the outdoors and in-person social activities because they prefer the screens. Should we be worrying about this? We want the truth! We want answers! We want to know what to do!

The truth that we don't want to hear is still the truth. It is this: It's complicated. In life, there are rarely simple answers to complex questions such as "How are kids being affected by screens?" and "What should I do as a parent about screen time for my kids?" Although this truth might be unsatisfactory and leave us uncomfortable, we must deal with reality as it is.

Screens are affecting people in a variety of ways - some good, some bad, and probably much of our use is rather benign or inconsequential. While we don't want to dismiss the possibility that screens can sometimes have a detrimental impact on people, we don't want to default to alarmism or ignore their many benefits.

When Do Screens Cause Problems?

Here is what I believe to be true about screen time. To be healthy and happy, we need to meet our basic human needs. These needs haven't changed much in thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of years. These include the needs for sleep, physical activity, a healthy diet, and in-person social interaction. When these needs aren't being met, we will experience negative outcomes such as problems in our physical and mental health.

At times, I do believe kids, teens, and adults are using screens in ways that interfere with these basic needs. Thus, if we or our teens are only getting 6 hours of sleep per night because we have gotten into the habit of watching YouTube or Snapchatting in bed, this chronic sleep deprivation will result in a variety of health problems. Yes, we are adaptive creatures, but adaptation has its limits.

Our basic human needs are not evolving even remotely as rapidly as technology. If we take nutrition as an example, we have an obesity epidemic in America. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, which results in tremendous suffering and cost to society. A staggering 300,000 people die each year due to this obesity epidemic. Why? Because we are consuming types of foods (fried, processed, high sugar, high fat) and in quantities that our bodies did not evolve to ingest. We can't evolve fast enough to offset these new eating habits. Plus, we are more sedentary than our ancestors, so we aren't burning off those extra calories and getting the physical activity that our bodies need.

I believe screens can interfere with meeting these needs, but it's so very difficult to say how much is too much and what types of screen time are problematic. This is where things get really messy. Because the issue is so complicated with so many variables, it's easy for researchers to skew their research and findings, even if unintentionally. Also, the media tends to focus on the negatives of screen use because that attracts more readers (i.e., if it bleeds, it leads).

The "Real" Harm of Screen Time That Researchers Aren't Measuring

As a parent of 3 boys, I am concerned about the effects of too much screen time. I know it's anecdotal, but I've yet to meet a parent who doesn't express any concerns about what kids are doing on their screens and how often they are on them. If nobody cared about this, news stories about screens wouldn't be making the headlines. Since you are reading this, you are concerned too!

When I see my kids in the summer preferring to stay indoors and play games on the iPad or Xbox to going to the pool or hiking in the woods, it bothers me. I can't blame them though. I know the truth is that if I'd had their screen options when I was a kid/teen, I would have spent a lot more time with screens and less time outdoors and hanging out with my friends. There are only so many hours in a day. All the time we are spending on screens must mean that other activities that we engaged in prior to the smartphone are being displaced.

Harm to Our Values

Perhaps therein lies one of the "real" harms of screen time. It's harm to our values as parents. We value:

  • Creative play with toys for younger kids
  • Outdoor fun & games
  • In-person social interactions
  • Reading books and novels for fun (crazy idea, right?)
  • Family time uninterrupted by screens
  • Focused work time uninterrupted by texting, social media, and push notifications
  • Being bored and making up engaging things to do
  • Car trips in which people talk to one another

Now, we might argue that screens infringing on the above do cause measurable harm in terms of well-being and relationship satisfaction. Let's forget all that for a moment though. When I'm being honest with myself, I can say that regardless of how much quantifiable harm screens are causing, I believe that there are beneficial things being lost or missed when kids are on the screen too much. I feel like my values, and the values that I'm trying to instill in my kids, are being jeopardized.

I daresay that if we would get widespread agreement among parents if we were to create some type of values survey for parents to rate statements such as:

  • I believe it is important for my child to leisure read.
  • I believe it is important for my child to play outdoors.
  • I believe it is important for my child to spend time with friends in-person on a regular basis

Harm to Values is a Type of Harm

Oftentimes, we view behaviors as good/bad or right/wrong based upon whether they are beneficial or cause harm. We might even say particular actions are morally right/wrong based upon whether they cause harm. For instance, we might say it's morally wrong to steal someone's wallet because it causes harm to the other person.

However, as social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt brilliantly describes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, harm is only one of several value sets. For instance, arguments about whether it is morally right/wrong to burn the U.S. flag or citizens should be able to carry firearms are not just about harm. For many people, they value the sanctity of the flag and the liberty to carry firearms.

For people who view right/wrong through these lenses, their beliefs don't rest solely on harm. That's why, for instance, arguments from liberals about harms caused to society by firearms (e.g., suicides, homicides, accidental shootings) won't sway a large percentage of gun rights activists (assuming folks agree upon the stats!). When it comes down to it, the value underlying their belief is not just about harm. It is more liberty. Recall Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death"? When politicians talk about restricting firearms, gun rights advocates view it as an infringement on the value of their liberty to bear arms.

Parental Values and Screens

We should still try to understand the effects of screens based upon research findings. But we need to be careful not to conflate our parental values with research findings on harm. For instance, we probably want our kids to be polite regardless of whether we can quantify the beneficial or harmful effects of being polite. Likewise, we won't always be able to quantify the effects of screens on our kids.

As parents, we have many values that we want to instill in our kids. We can't always quantify these values or "prove" their worth. Yet, we still want our kids to internalize these values. These include in-person social interaction, reading, creative activities (off screen), outdoor play, and family conversations. In a broad sense, we want them to internalize the value of a balanced life - to enjoy their screens and offline activities. As parents, we see screen time squeezing out some of these other valued activities.

We don't have to set draconian limits on kids' screen time. We just want to protect sacred spaces for these other experiences because we think they are valuable, even if we can't prove it. Of course, this also means we have to put down our own screens. We must be mindful that the best way for our kids to internalize our values is to lead by example rather than wagging our finger at them. Now, ahem, time to wrap up this post...