Is screen time like heroin for young minds?

How harmful is screen time, really? Is there any consensus? And what should you do now to manage your family’s time online? Digital wellbeing expert Georgie Powell explains.

Over 2019 and 2020, the leading scientific journal, Nature, published two very different results to studies trying to answer the question of how harmful screen time is to young minds. In one, Andrew Przbylski and Amy Orben from Oxford’s Internet Institute argued that screen time is no more harmful to young people than eating potatoes.  In the other, Jean Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Joiner and William Keith Campbell used similar research methods to show that heavy social media use is more harmful to girls’ mental health than heroin.

Disparities in the results of studies like these make it really hard for parents to know what to believe and how to set parental controls and time limits based on fact. What’s going on here?

As a researcher myself, here is what I can tell you:

1. Similar studies may use different measurement criteria, sample sizes or demographic groups to test their hypothesis.

For example, the samples differ by age group, gender, geography or income group. There is mounting evidence for instance that girls can be more affected by social media than boys. Why? Because they are generally more invested online, share more of their lives and are quicker to believe that others are having a better time. Factors like personality type, friendship networks, level of social vulnerability will all play a big role in a child’s experience online – factors which have not yet been captured in large-scale studies.

2. Large-scale studies often group all screen time into one category.

But the reality is that not all screentime is created equal. Some activities may be positive for your child, while others more harmful, and the best balance is formed as a consequence of managing both the quality and quantity of time online.

3. Researchers use complex statistics to crunch lots of data to find a correlation.

They may use different statistical methods than other research projects. So even if the same data-set in two studies tests the same question, the results may differ if technically the data is managed differently.  To make matters more complicated – proving a correlation (for instance between heavy screentime and mental health issues), does not actually prove causation – it simply points to a relationship. Is it that social media affects the mental health of girls? Or perhaps girls with poorer mental health are more likely to spend time on social media?

Is there any consensus on how harmful screen time is for kids?

The largest growing consensus is the belief that screen time itself is not the issue. Instead, what is more important is the displacement effect, when time spent online means that young people miss out on real-life experiences that may be more beneficial for their wellbeing or development. This may include missed opportunities for face to face interaction, physical activity or creative exploits that aren’t found online.

Also, we know that not all screen time is created equal. We need to understand more about the specific online interactions which affect emotions.

Finally, we know that individual experience counts a lot.  How we engage online is highly personal and the same experience could also vary for one person on a daily basis depending on the context of that interaction, the individual’s mood and their perspective. To get more concrete answers, researchers now need to focus on better interpreting the interaction and emotional effects of engaging online.

Dr Raian Ali, Professor of Technology and Behaviour at Hamad Bin Khalifa University says “triggers and intention of use, sentiments and emotions in the online content, whether received or sent, are all important contextual factors to meaningfully describe a person’s online experience”. It is this nuance that will help us to build a true image of the effect of screen time on a person’s life, avoiding the pitfalls of some macro-studies.

Where can we look for the truth?

From a research perspective, the screen time debate reminds me of the early days of environmentalism. Like climate change research, data is being collected in a changing ecosystem. Research can take years, during which time, the apps and services we are using online will have changed drastically, and the data upon which the research is based is no longer relevant.

Also, just as oil companies had to clean up their image as  environmentalism grew, today tech companies have a vested interest to understand the impact of their products and to paint a positive picture. With any study we must be aware of who is the funding source and be aware of bias in the ways the questions are asked, which questions are asked and which results are shared. Though the results are not likely to be biased, only some data points are shared.

I agree with Dr Ali who says, “It’s time to avoid macro-concepts like ‘internet addiction’, ‘digital wellbeing’ and ‘screen time’. They are too vague and don’t help diagnosing how individuals experience technology in its different components, manifestations and contexts. These micro-studies can then be pieced together to form a more robust analysis framework of the impact of the various types of screen time on young minds.”

In other words, the truth will come out through the repetition of micro-studies. In the meantime, we parents are the best placed researchers to understand the impact that screen time is having on our kids.

By following these digital wellbeing best practices, you can support your child towards healthy online habits:

1. Have the conversation about online habits.  

Encourage your child to reflect on what makes them feel good online and what doesn’t, and to take control of their technology use.

2. Use my 4 Cs model of Digital Wellbeing

Make sure that you are in control of when you choose to use your device, that you are building the right connections, that the content you consume is beneficial, and that you are able to take care that screen time brings a net benefit to your life.

3. Understand what apps and tools your child is using.

If appropriate for your child, use parental controls like Qustodio to stay in touch with your children’s online activity. Use insights to encourage conversation as a family and to build healthy habits.

4. Model good behaviour yourself.

Keep your own mental health in check by installing your own healthy tech habits.

More online safety and digital wellbeing articles from Qustodio:

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