Screen time: How much is too much?
Monday, January 13, 2020
As our world becomes more and more digital, our classrooms continue to become transformed through technology. The curriculum binders in the back of the teacher’s classroom have been replaced with a shared “drive.”
The whiteboard at the front of the room seldom has dry erase marking on it because students know their agenda, know that their notes will always live in the “cloud” and realize that the whiteboard is really a way for the teacher to project the Google Classroom on the wall. There is an app for everything — literally.
As we continue to see the rise of screen time among children coupled with the rise in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, one can’t help but wonder what, if any, correlation may exist between the two. My wife and I, both educators, try to apply this same logic to our own five children, all under the age of 14.
As with most parents, we believe in finding a healthy balance with screen time so that our kids can learn to self-regulate with the technology that is going to define their work space, their social lives, and their consumer habits as they become adults. We struggle as educators with the same question we ask ourselves as educators: How much screen time is too much?
In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kim Tingley set out to answer that very question. Tingley reported that one of the first major studies to look at her question came about from a Pew Survey, which concluded that increased screen time use by adolescents increased the likelihood of symptoms of depression and suicidal ideations.
In contrast, adolescents who spent more time engaged in activities such as extracurriculars or spending time with friends experienced a decrease in these symptoms. The story didn’t end there. Many found Pew’s research to be a bit dire and extreme and were hopeful that more light could be shed on that topic through further research.
As Tingley reported, two Oxford University researchers applied a comprehensive statistical method to the 2017 Pew Survey data and arrived at a slightly different result. They published their findings in this Nature Human Behavior journal article.
The Oxford researchers found that the 2017 survey data led to inconclusive results. Why? Tingley explained that first it is due to the fact that “people are notoriously bad at self-reporting how often they do something or how they feel.” Why is that?
Tingley explained it this way: “Even if their responses are entirely accurate, that data can’t speak to cause and effect. If the most depressed teenagers also use the most digital technology, for example, there’s no way to say if the technology use caused their low mood or vice versa, or if other factors were involved.”
To combat this, researchers used a meth od known as specification curve analysis, seeking to find a relationship between digital-technology use and adolescent well-being in various ongoing surveys of adolescents in both the United States and the United Kingdom. While researchers in the 2017 study had to make a judgment call on what they would define “well-being” to mean, the Oxford researchers didn’t limit themselves to one definition for well-being. As Tingley explained they “tested every possible combination of choices that a careful scientist could reasonably make, generating a range of outcomes.”
What did they discover? The Oxford researchers concluded that “digital-technology use has a small negative association with adolescent well-being.” Don’t get too excited, because one cannot simply conclude that screen time is safe for kids.
As Tingley reported, “Not finding a strong association doesn’t mean that screen time is healthy or safe for teenagers. It could come with huge risks that are simply balanced by huge rewards.” This was further explained by Nick Allen, director of the Center for Digital Mental Health at the University of Oregon, who stated, “The part that people don’t appreciate is that digital technology also has significant benefits.”
What we need are additional studies, ones that actually break down the various components of screen time and look at how changes to each individual component play out with adolescents. This research could take years to gather and analyze. Meanwhile, I think I’ll stick with my parenting methods for now — no more than an hour a day, max, for my kids!
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