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With the transition to online learning, the Gonski report, which represents a starting point for a series of Growing Up Digital Australia reports, alerts us to not overuse our screens. Specifically, the report mentions that technology has been a major distraction to learning, with the outcome being a reduced ability in being able to efficiently pay attention to the learning task at hand. With reports such as these in circulation, the issue of screen time, in particular, how much time children interact with screens, has emerged as a debate of recent interest, especially in relation to well-being.
Unfortunately, much of the claims that have emerged from this debate is that screen time is bad for children. Conversely, there are some researchers who propose that there exists limited evidence to robustly support these claims. Then, there are others who sit on the fence of welcoming the important role that technology plays in learning, but still want to know the optimal amount of time that children should be exposed to screens without it being detrimental to their development. This article seeks to clarify this debate by offering a more detailed view of specific pieces of the puzzle that are missing from the current screen time debate.
Screen time makes reference to the number of hours and minutes that an individual interacts with technological devices, including computers, laptops, mobile phones, and televisions. A seemingly recurring event each day is that we are flooded with messages about the supposed negative impacts of screen time. But why has this debate become so all-consuming?
One hint is because it brings with it the argument that increased screen time is a leading contributor to a range of reduced physical states, including reduced exercise, and we know that consistent exercise leads to better psychological outcomes. However, previous associations between screen time and the reduction of physical exercise, for example, is not to be taken to indicate that children are replacing being active with screens. Instead, it is highly likely that this association is dependent upon individual differences in the extent to which children are interested in being physically active. That is, it does not logically follow that children who would not normally enjoy exercise would suddenly exercise more if their screen time is reduced.
There are, however, some positive findings. For example, 36 studies between 2002 and 2017 suggested that technology has been used by adolescents to advance their relationships, including their intimacy and affection skills as well as to schedule face-to-face activities. However, in contrast, other researchers have shown very little relationship between well-being and screen time in preschool children. What could be the reason for these contradicting results? This likely arises from variations in the research context across these studies, including the age of participants, the method of collecting data, and types of questions asked.
Nevertheless, given the screen time debate, global health organisations, including The World Health Organisation, as well as the American Academy of Paediatrics and Australian Department of Health, have provided published guidelines on screen time. According to these organisations, it is suggested that no screen time is recommended for children under the age of 18 months, with the exception of exposure to video-calling (e.g., FaceTiming with a family member). Further to this, a limit of an hour is suggested for children aged two to five. Screen time guidelines for childhood and adolescent usage are less clear.
Given the onset of the COVID-19 and the requirement for students to be online, it is quite understandable that some parents still grapple with their own fears of too much screen time. The above-mentioned guidelines are therefore of particular interest to parents who seek to ensure that technology is being used in a developmentally appropriate way for their children. In assessing the above-mentioned published guidelines for healthy technology use, they point to three main factors that should be considered: (1) screen time, (2) content on the screen and (3) with whom we share screens. Unfortunately, the debate so far on this issue has been primarily led by the screen time dimension, in particular with asking ‘How much screen time is optimal?’ Consequently, the missing pieces that need further discussion include screen quality (content of the screen), and screen collaboration (with whom children share screens).
Screen quality refers to the characteristics of the content that appears on screens when we interact with them. More often than not, when we think about the current debate on screen time usage, we think about aimless scrolling on social media pages, with no perceived benefits. However, there is no doubt that there exists content that, when accessed by technology, can be quite advantageous in advancing learning. Screen quality is thought to be influenced by three interrelated characteristics, including age-appropriateness, educational value and interactiveness of the content.
Age-appropriateness of screen content
Age-appropriateness of screen content often deals with determining the extent to which specific content and exposure are developmentally appropriate, based on one’s chronological age. Although exposure to good quality on screens presents an opportunity for learning, it has been found that for very young children, it is more valuable to engage in unstructured play. More specifically, children age 2 and younger retain information better when it is presented live versus in a video format, although, this is dependent on age differences and type of task. Thus, too often, all types of interaction with technology are viewed as a singular engagement. In fact, Amy Orben, research fellow from The University of Cambridge, explains that different technologies have different effects (emphasising the quality of the experience) and even the same content can have different impacts on different children at the same chronological age.
Educational and interactive value of screen content
Screen time can also offer an educational experience, with many opportunities to enhance learning and problem-solving skills, and in the case of younger children, fine motor skills. More critically, there exist a wide range of educational applications that are designed to adapt to a child’s ability level, and sometimes interest, thereby offering a more personalised experience. In other cases, it has been found that moderate exposure to the television was found to be associated with better literacy outcomes, compared to those children who had low or very high exposure to the television. Similarly, researchers Przybylski and Weinstein conducted a study with 120,115 adolescents and found that moderate exposure to electronic screens contributed to better well-being in comparison to adolescents with low or high exposure.
But, based on the social-cognitive perspective, as proposed by social psychologist Albert Bandura, the effects of screen content is not a straightforward process. In his theory, Bandura explains the concepts of a modeller and an observer. The modeller performs the behaviour of interest and the observer watches this behaviour. In the context of watching a video game, for example, the modeller would be a video game character, and the observer would be a video-game watcher. The central idea that Bandura proposes is that with time, and given the right conditions, the observer begins to imitate the behaviour of the model. For example, researchers have found evidence that exposure to pro-social behaviour through interactive video games, for example, facilitates prosocial behaviour in a Singaporean, Japanese and U.S. based context. Note, however, that Bandura argues that such effects would likely depend on a range of factors, including whether the modeller and observer share similar values, the prestige of the modeller, the likeability of the modeller and whether the observer has the skills to achieve the behaviour being modelled. Therefore, under the right conditions, interactive technology can be used to also educate students on better social skills and behaviours.
Screen collaboration makes reference to the shared experiences of viewing screens (e.g., parents simultaneously viewing the screen with their child). Amy Orben notes that to date, there is still very little high-quality data, and therefore, very little knowledge about what children are doing with the technology on a day to day basis. This is one of the problems that is being addressed at Cinglevue with the development of the Virtuoso platform, which seeks to analyse and better understand not only the academic outcomes of students, but also how they interact with content in an online learning system and how this impacts upon their academic, emotional, and social outcomes.
For the time being, a practical way of managing screen collaboration is to develop and meticulously implement a family media plan that is supported by current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents would benefit from being informed about the guidelines and research in this area, and then develop personalised goals as a family unit, including seeking appropriate opportunities to facilitate playing. In addition to using published guidelines, parents are able to engage in co-viewing of material to make a more informed decision about the appropriateness of the content. When content is deemed to be appropriate, this can be an opportunity to enhance learning, as well as making the content relatable to the real world. Using these serve and return connections, parents offer an environment that advances brain development. However, co-viewing can sometimes be viewed as intrusive and characteristic of helicopter parenting. Therefore, the effectiveness of the family media plan relies heavily upon respect, active communication and a bit of trust during this process, especially when children get to the adolescent years when conflict will likely arise.
So is less screen time better?
It is too simplistic to think of screen time as being a “too much or too little” story. The evidence base is becoming bigger to show that children are in fact using technology in a very healthy way. The debate on screen time has been oversimplified and much of the arguments on this issue still largely ignore that interaction with screens provides an opportunity to engage in learning activities, which allows children to explore content in a more interactive, simulated way that is not possible without the use of technology.
So does this mean that we should disregard the screen time debate as being nonsensical and unimportant especially during this time with learning being transitioned online? Absolutely not! To be clear, there is evidence of the negative impacts that extended screen time presents, as discussed above. Indeed, the absence of robust evidence is not synonymous with permitting children to remain on screens all day. It is a matter of moderation. More critically, however, rather than placing all our attention on only one aspect of the debate – screen time – we have a duty to examine the matter at all levels of complexity. With the current evidence, we cannot say, with confidence, that less screen time is better because we do not know to date.
So, what does this all mean and what is the way forward for children’s screen time usage? Well, even though the evidence agrees with some negative effects of screen time, the evidence base is too small to say that children’s usage of screen time should be reduced. A starting point would be more robust research into how screen time interacts with screen content and screen collaboration, in what context and in which type of individual. The answer cannot, therefore, be a mere yes or no, given the complexity of the situation. In other words, we need to consider the whole child and other factors that likely influence why some children are negatively affected by screen time and others emerge from the interaction just fine.
To maximise the benefits of screen time usage for children according to Daniel Kardefelt-Winther, UNICEF’s expert on children and digital technologies, we can adopt a rights-based perspective. This perspective ensures that before any decisions are made regarding the use of digital technologies among children, all perspectives need to be considered, children need to be consulted in accordance with their chronological age and level of maturity and fundamentally, the best interests of the child should always be considered.