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Exploring healthy digital options: The benefits of balanced screen time

Andrew McCarthy, Head of High School Economics, Dover Campus
17 April 2018

UWCSEA's Digital Literacy team explores the evidence-based research on the benefits of a balanced approach to screen time.

Screen time is evidently a hot topic for parents, educators and researchers alike with much conjecture and debate over appropriate levels of screen time for children of all ages. In a world where it is nearly impossible to avoid the ubiquitous screen for creating, consuming and communicating this is understandably an interesting area to explore.

This article brings together some of the evidence-based research that exists in this field, with the aim of shifting the focus of current discussion from producing a metric that recommends ‘desired hours of screen time’ to a more nuanced understanding of the context in which children view or engage with different types of digital media. While the overwhelming focus in mainstream journalism seems to be on highlighting the risks and harms of screen time, we have collected research and advice that highlights the benefits of balanced use through building a positive connection with your child.

When exploring an issue such as screen time we try to look for original contemporary research that is often highlighted by journalists. Where possible we identify research-based meta analysis studies or longitudinal projects where we can look for trends. In this instance, research from the collaborative Parenting for a Digital Future at the London School of Economics provides a grounded synthesis of the research published to date.  Alongside this we reference other meta studies including the 2017 UNICEF Report; The State of the World Children and the OECD Report from 2015; Students, Computers and Learning. The book The Art of Screen Time by Anya Kamenetz, is one of many recent publications on the topic of screen time. This particular book explores a very practical set of strategies which resonated with our ambition of empowering students and our view of seeing parents and teachers as mentors. Our thinking is constantly challenged and informed by our interactions and reflections with students, parents and teachers in coffee mornings, workshops or classes.

The broadest definition of screen time is spending time on an electronic device, such as using the internet, watching television or using a gaming console. As working professionals this might begin by checking a news app in the morning, logging into a work computer for the majority of the day, messaging a friend about dinner, through to watching Netflix in the evenings. For students, this could be using an iPad or laptop in lessons throughout the school day, messaging family, video calls with friends, playing video games or watching YouTube in their freetime. As parents and educators, the biggest challenge we face is encouraging the positive aspects of digital media such as creating or connecting socially against more passive uses of devices which we may like to moderate.

There are many studies which attempts to quantify screen time for children. The most recent OECD data reported that in 2015, teenagers spent 146 minutes online each weeknight on average, a sharp increase from the 103 minutes reported three years earlier. In two separate studies in Canada and Australia, data highlighted that an average 3-5 year old will spend two hours on a screen each day.  Statistics reporting screen time for parents point to very high usage levels. Data collected by Common Sense Media suggests that when work and personal media are combined, 51 percent of parents spend eight hours or more with screen media each day.

One of the largest cross sectional studies of 120,000 students in the United Kingdom reported in the UNICEF analysis, concluded that moderate use of 2-5 hours per day (depending on the activity), seemed to have a small positive effect on mental wellbeing. Whilst excessive use of digital media can have a slight negative effect on overall well-being, parents and educators need to be equally cognisant of other factors. For children these include: sleep, eating breakfast regularly, and considering social dynamics which can have stronger impacts on their wellbeing than technology alone.

The most publicised yet debated recommendation on screen time came from the American Association of Pediatrics (APP). In 2011, they recommended no screen time for infants under 2 and a very moderate one hour of use per day for older children. However in 2016 the APP published new guidance highlighting that a balanced use of digital media, moderated by social interactions with friends and parents, can be beneficial. For instance, when parents are mediating screen time, watching together, asking questions and pointing out examples, children will be more engaged and parents more critical of the content. When consumption is passive and solo, the same benefits of screen time are limited and the risks more pronounced. This idea is extended to children with specific learning and social emotional needs, where excessive consumption of media has inherently higher risks.

Research highlighting the positive effects of screen time gets less attention in the mainstream media. To borrow the food metaphor from Anya Kamenetz and her book The Art of Screen Time, we should try to encourage children to consume a balanced diet of media. As with fruit and vegetables there are lots of ‘healthy’ digital options that we can encourage our children to explore. Examples include activities such as: reading eBooks, educational games and television, creative projects or connecting socially to friends and family. Every week we see great examples of students pursuing their passions: editing film footage of their holidays, publishing soundtracks, educational games, creating stop motion videos with LEGO or blogging and curating an audience. All of these can be alternative ways to spend time on devices and encouraged in moderation. On occasions such as stifling hot afternoons we may let our children indulge in watching music videos or something frivolous but overall we need them to navigate a path to balanced use.

Whilst there have been few scientifically rigorous trials analysing the impact of digital media, there are several small studies that highlight potential risks of excessive use. Excessive screen time of more than 7 hours per day, in one activity can impact children's well being, but the impacts are seldomly attributable to digital technologies alone. For instance, some research highlight links between watching television for extended periods of time and obesity. Other studies connect media use late in the evening to production of the stress hormone cortisol and poor quality sleep. Literature highlighted in the UNICEF report, suggested that labelling excessive consumption as addiction, often conflates the issue. More realistically, only a very tiny minority of children or even adults are ever likely to experience such severe impairment of a major area of their life achieving clinical significance. Our best advice for any parent who is concerned is to look out for changes in; eating and sleep patterns, child's physical health, willingness to connect socially with peers, engagement in school and desire to pursue hobbies or interests. These issues may manifest through the excessive use of digital media and be triggered by other social emotional issues.

We work closely with your child in various lessons to slowly introduce the idea of screen time, finding balance and more broadly digital citizenship. In the Primary School this includes assemblies exploring what effective communication or look like online and highlighting the parallels to the face-to-face environment. In Middle School we aim to equip students with self-regulation strategies or particular apps like Moment or Focus to track usage and to support reflection. Through our PSE curriculum in the High School we aim to help student make informed decisions to enhance well being and productivity, overtime helping them navigate the reality of growing up in a digital world.

Whilst you could probably attempt to raise your child in a bubble and try to block many of the digital temptations surrounding them, we believe that the presence of devices in society will only grow. Thus we are obligated to act as role models and to support our children in using devices in moderation and set boundaries and have discussions when they are overused. In some families this may mean restrictive monitoring of younger children and setting guidelines. For older students you may mediate your child’s use through discussions about their viewing of the latest Netflix series or video game. In light of a constantly evolving landscape of online media, negotiation and discussion of media use will be a ongoing conversation for parents and educators alike.

Note: written in collaboration with UWCSEA's Digital Literacy teams

Works Cited