SCREENS: GOOD OR BAD? By Nicola Morgan

This question cannot have a yes or no answer, whatever the headlines would have us believe. And the sooner we stop arguing over whether it’s good or bad, the sooner we will be able to find a way of interacting with our wonderful devices that will allow us to harness the best aspects and mitigate the downsides. These black and white headlines are simply not helping.

I was reminded of this especially as I shook my head over the glib, clichéd, disparaging review in Private Eye (17.11.17) of some books that take a negative view of the effects of screens on our lives. I have read some of the books mentioned, though not the central one – OFF – YOUR DIGITAL DETOX FOR A BETTER LIFE, by Tanya Goodin – and, yes, they take a largely negative view. That’s the job they explicitly set out to do: outline problems. My own book, Life Online, sets out to talk about the positives and negatives, so I hope it won’t fall into the trap, but it’s highly unlikely to be reviewed in Private Eye so I assume I’ll never know. The fact that my “negative” sections are longer than my “positive” sections is that the negatives are genuinely interesting and important and must be properly explained! We learn by being open-minded and that Private Eye review was not, falling back as it did on that old cliché, “We’ve been here before.” I was only surprised Socrates didn’t get a mention in the list of people from bygone times who have worried about advancing technology.

I get that Private Eye is against bandwagons and they do a good job there, and I get that digital detoxing is the new thing (I’ve been talking about it for a while) and I get that the idea as presented in OFF might be a bit trite and light, but on the topic of digital being good/bad, by being so disparaging of researchers, scientists and writers who are highlighting the negatives, critics risk blinding themselves to the other side. Extremes are rarely valuable or true and we do no one any favours by taking one of them.

Dark chocolate is good for you!

Headline: 7 health benefits of Dark Chocolate. Are things really just good or bad for you?

Oh no! Dark chocolate is bad for you!

Headline: Dark chocolate isn't so healthy for you after all. Are things really just good or bad for you?
Screen-time is bad for teenagers – they apparently do worse in GCSEs, even after spending ONE HOUR on their screens!? Erm…

Headline: Teenagers who watch screens in free time do worse in GCSEs. Is screen time good or bad for you?

And look: it harms their sleep:

headline: Screen time harms teenagers' sleep. Is screen time good or bad for you?

But no, it’s all ok – thank goodness:

Headline: Four hours of screen time aids wellbeing of teenagers. Is screen time good or bad for you?

As long as you only have four hours? Four hours and 17 minutes, to be precise, after which terrible things start to happen and your tongue goes blue. I’m lying. Mind you, this research did not test whether anyone’s tongue went blue so it might have. Be careful. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In this age of skim-reading – caused by our use of the very devices we are arguing about – it is more important than ever to delve far deeper than the headlines and apply some critical thinking to everything we read. If adults would stop leaping on every headline that suits their point of view and waving it in front of us as though any headline could be the answer to anything, we might be able to find useful truths that would actually help us all live better.

SO, IS SCREEN-TIME GOOD OR BAD? FOR TEENAGERS? FOR PARENTS? FOR ANYONE?

Both good and bad, depending on how you use them, how much you use them, what negative effects you experience and how in control of your use you are. Rather like chocolate.

For the record, here is where I stand:

I love my gadgets. I am deeply wedded to social media, online communication and the vast benefits all this brings. I love my smartphone and all my i-devices, even though the degree to which both Apple and Google have their claws in me is intensely irritating.

I have also done a great deal of research and, although the research is necessarily relatively young and cannot include studies into long-term effects, I think we have enough not only to have a good sense of many benefits but also to have some insight into extremely likely downsides. These downsides are mostly not terrifying but they are concerning and require all of us to be aware of them. Just as we needed to be aware that dark chocolate, if consumed too much, has some very obvious problems.

What I’m going to say (and indeed everything I will say in LIFE ONLINE) applies almost equally whatever age you are. Certainly, young brains are more plastic so many would argue that there is more to worry about with young people, but I don’t think that’s as important as you might think: we change our brains with everything we do and you only have to look at how our behaviours have quickly changed to incorporate devices and possibilities that didn’t exist even 15 years ago to know that age is no barrier to learning new things and developing new habits, bad or good.

What I’m talking about is not the fact that the internet and smartphone (etc) exist but the way we (most of us) use smartphones, so often being umbilically linked to them and accessing them so often and so routinely. It’s how we use them that is the issue, more than what they can do. We need to think more.

SOME BENEFITS (WITH SOME PROVISOS IN BRACKETS)

  • Access to knowledge about almost anything (although there is also a lot of rubbish to wade through on the route to the knowledge)
  • Ability to connect with a far broader range of people than we otherwise could
  • Ability to interact with people who share our issues or concerns even if they don’t live near us (although this can also mean we only talk to people who agree with us)
  • A chance for people who are socially unconfident to initiate and build friendships (though avoiding making friends in real life is not a good idea)
  • It can be fun and relaxing (though if we spend too long on our screens we may lose opportunities for other important activities such as exercise and face-to-face interaction)
  • There are extra opportunities for being creative, such as making videos
  • Many Apps help us towards healthy lives – there are many positive ways of using our smartphones
  • We can make good things happen
  • They can keep us safe and get us out of tricky situations

SOME DOWNSIDES (AND I WILL PROVIDE EVIDENCE FOR THESE IN LATER POSTS)

Caution: we do not yet know to what extent any of these is important. My task is to delve into what research is showing (and there is already more than you might imagine) and make good judgements about it. So, currently, I raise these simply as areas I’m looking at, all of which seem to have pretty good evidence already to suggest that they are legitimate concerns to some extent.

  • Distraction, “continual partial attention” and the downsides of attempting to multi-task (because that’s what we are doing when we read on screen or when we try to work while our phone is beside us)
  • Negative effects on sleep
  • Raising stress levels (of course, I recognise that using our screens can be relaxing but sometimes it very obviously is not)
  • Effects on physical exercise levels – it’s likely that for many people their screen use reduces the time they are outside and active
  • Some downsides of reading digitally rather than reading print – there is good evidence that there is a small loss of comprehension, processing and recall for most people; the difference probably doesn’t matter for most reading tasks but it may for others
  • Are some people (and this may apply more to young people) losing ability to socialise face-to-face – there is some evidence
  • Cyber-bullying and cruel online behaviour – the “online disinhibition effect” – with group behaviour thrown in; people tend to be harsher and crueller when they can’t see the person they are being cruel to and when they can be anonymous
  • Problems from sharing personal information – not just the area of online safety but the whole lack of privacy thing
  • Mistakes can be “out there” forever
  • Raised anxiety because of a fascinating theory called “bad maths” – more later!
  • Extra exposure to goals of unachievable perfection, thanks to seeing everyone else’s “perfect” lives or photos
  • Exposure to (and potentially the normalisation of) darker sides of human behaviour than most people want to or would normally see – extreme internet porn, grotesque misogyny, verbal violence
  • Constant repetition of bad news, which may lead to lower mood and greater depressive behaviour in some people
  • Lack of peace and quiet, thinking time, reflection
  • Constant bombardment of information or demands to respond
  • Much of what we read online is drivel and it’s not always easy to tell the difference – the whole “fake news” thing is only a part of it; much of the rubbish is not deliberately rubbish, just unintelligent, poorly researched or poorly thought-through accidental garbage

But the fact that my list of downsides is a lot longer than my list of benefits doesn’t mean that screen-time is in general “bad” for us. It just means that we need to be aware of what we may be doing to ourselves if we are not in control of our devices and our use of them.

They need to be our tools, not our rulers.

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