Where I stand on screen-time guidelines

There are some reasons why I need to make this extra clear, right now, even though I’ve been saying this for ages.

Reason 1: I have reason to believe I’m being MIS-quoted. I don’t know this yet, though I’m trying to discover if it’s true. A student the other day said something like, “In view of a recent article on the new screen-time guidelines, in which you were quoted, how do you feel about the advice going against your recommendations?” I’ve seen some new guidelines but they’re not against my recommendations – in fact they echo my views. But I couldn’t answer properly, not having seen what he was referring to and not having seen how I was quoted. This is why I may have been misquoted – or may not, I just don’t know.

Reason 2: Young people often assume I’ll be boring and negative about screen-time, because I’m an adult and we’re all assumed to be super-negative about young people and screen-time. I’m far from super-negative! (Though I’m quite negative about some adult behaviour…) Young people also sometimes think I can’t know anything about this, because, adult. For the record, I have a) been using screens and the Internet for a verrrrrrrrrry long time indeed and b) have studied the science closely.

Reason 3: Since organisations do keep bringing out guidelines (which, incidentally, vary), I want to say what I think of them.

Reason 4: Since media outlets often report on these guidelines vaguely and shallowly or misleadingly, I would like to look a bit more deeply.

Reason 5: When some new guidelines came out about a week ago, I was asked by the BBC to speak about them but I couldn’t get to a studio in time so I couldn’t. Not everyone lives in London or a big city.

So, here we go

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently issued new guidelines called The Health Impacts of Screentime on Children and Young People. Here are the key messages and you’ll see whether they go against what I think or not:

1.“The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.”

Correct. We do not know, in a measurable way, what the exact “toxic” effects of screentime of any sort might be, if any. There are many different sorts of screentime – from casual texting and messaging to prolonged gaming; from positive engagement with friends on social media, to feeling that you have to keep checking in for fear of missing out; from discovering new knowledge and skills to constantly comparing yourself to other people’s “perfect” lives, faces and bodies. So, “screentime” means too many things to be meaningfully measurable.

My consistent message in all my talks: all that matters is how YOU use your screens and what they are doing to YOU, not what the research shows or doesn’t show about statistics. I advocate self-awareness, understanding of how human brains (and we ourselves) work, and then applying that to our observations of how we feel and react. The fact that we don’t know how much screentime is “bad for us” doesn’t mean that all screentime is good for us.

2.“Evidence is weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children’s screen time overall.”

Correct. We do not know how much screentime is too much and, as I frequently say, we never will know this because all the different types of screentime are variously positive and negative. There’s no answer to the question because the question is many questions, different for each activity and each individual in each situation.

However, see my next point.

3. “Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.”

Correct! I say in all my talks on this – and I say it in Life Online, too – that the problem with too much screentime is not the screentime but what we might do less of if we spend a lot of time (as I do) on screens. If we are (as many people are) spending less time on a) exercise and going outdoors b) face-to-face socialising c) sleep d) offline hobbies such as reading for pleasure and e) day-dreaming and thinking, then it’s easy to conclude that we will lose out. I’ve written about the power of day-dreaming (and the science behind it!) in Positively Teenage.

This all fits perfectly well with what I say

I created my Six Steps to Online Well-Being here, and in it I included this pledge (below) for discussion. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 are crucial to today’s topic. See, I’m not saying “use your phone less”. I’ve got no idea if you need to use your phone less! My point is, and always has been: we all should make sure we’re having a healthy life, with enough exercise, sleep, face-to-face and all the other things that make our lives full and varied and strong and good: hobbies, reading for pleasure, cooking, sharing food with friends, celebrating, loving, laughing, living.

Unfortunately, this advice from the RCPCH has been picked up in a slightly different way because the media do love a headline that is controversial. So, they pick up “No direct evidence that screentime is actually bad for kids.” Well, yes. But this does not mean that screentime is “good for kids”, which is the implication some might take. The point, as I’ve said above, is that we don’t know if it’s good or bad because we can’t measure it because “it” is lots of different things. It’s an impossible question. That’s why the Teenage Guide to Life Online unpicks positives and negatives in every area.

For the record:

I

AM

NOT

ANTI

SCREENTIME!

I love it! I often love it a bit too much. Fortunately, I also love running, eating, sleeping, reading, chatting, gardening and a load of other things. Oh, and working. So I can create a good balance. And balance is good in most things.

But, but, BUT…

…let me tell you something interesting about the guidance from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. They say:

“To develop this guide, we consulted 109 children and young people from across the UK, aged 11-24 years.”

Seriously? 109 people over a 14-year span means fewer than 8 people in each year group. And they used this to base their guidelines on? So, while I agree with the key messages, I think guidelines should be based on more than asking 8 people in each year group for their opinions. Of course, the RCPCH have masses more to base their guidelines on, as they presumably did. I was just surprised to see them say it was just based on such a small survey. (NB Always look carefully to see what a media headline is based on.) I guess the RCPCH just wanted to keep the message simple. I think we can take more detail and more depth, tbh, don’t you?

I certainly did a lot more research than that for The Teenage Guide to Life Online! Read that for a deeper understanding of the wonderful positives that can come from screentime and life online, as well as for deep insights into what the possible downsides are if we use our screens in certain ways. One thing we know about the brain is that what we do changes it; and what we spend most time on changes it most. That can be good or bad but if we understand the differences, then – and only then – can we make great choices.

A clear message to the young people I talk to about this – including the British Embassy School in Ankara, where I’m going next week:

  1. What I tell you is not based on my age or your age – we’re all in this together and adults have as much to learn as young people.
  2. I’m on your side. I use tech a LOT and recognise my own unhealthy as well as healthy behaviours.
  3. I’ve read and understand the science. Of course, I have opinions – as everyone is entitled to – but be assured that my opinions are based on research and human science, not media headlines. Ever.

Let’s get away from silly polarising newspaper headlines and just think sensibly about how what we do affects us. If we don’t experience any problems, no problem. If we do, let’s find ways to deal with them.

I’m going to put the kettle on and then pack for Ankara – where I hear it’s -14C! YIKES!

Students of BESA, I am really looking forward to meeting you and chatting about all of this properly.

 

 

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