When Did We Get So Scared of 'Screen Time'?

The myth of brain rot from glowing rectangles


"Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain," says Psychology Today. "A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley," announces The New York Times. "Finally, we're all wising up about the dangers of screen time for kids," adds the Los Angeles Times. Then there's the New York Post, which in 2016 ran a Nicholas Kardaras column headlined "It's 'digital heroin': How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies."

As is often the case, the headlines are overblown. The papers cited in Psychology Today aren't simply about "too much screen time"; they're about people who were dysfunctional enough to be diagnosed with internet addiction. (Not that it's even clear what internet addiction means—researchers haven't come up with a standardized definition of the disorder yet, and not every scientist in the field thinks it's a useful label.) That New York Times article doesn't deal with scientific research at all; it's about employees at Silicon Valley companies who try to limit their kids' exposure to the tools they work on. The Los Angeles Times op-ed spends much more time describing a shift in public opinion than defending it.

And that New York Post column wound up getting debunked in Psychology Today, which sounds a little remorseful about its earlier coverage. "You can find many similar scare headlines and articles elsewhere in the popular media, including even some here at Psychology Today," the outlet explains. Where the Post piece invokes brain imaging studies to declare that "your kid's brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs," the debunker points out the missing context: "The research that Kardaras referred to demonstrates that certain pathways in the forebrain, where dopamine is the neurotransmitter, become active when people are playing video games, and drugs like heroin activate some of these same pathways. What Kardaras' and similar articles leave out, however, is the fact that everything that is pleasurable activates these pathways. These are the brain's pleasure pathways."

There is, in fact, very little good research about screen time's effects on children and teenagers. To the extent that the question is framed that way, there probably won't ever be much good research about it. "Screen time" just isn't a very meaningful category. It's bad enough to jumble all the things you can do on a phone or a tablet or a laptop or a television together. But to jumble the devices themselves together, so that the same concept covers everything from texting to watching the Super Bowl? You might as well be tallying up the time we spend looking at paper.

If you're old enough to have children, you're probably old enough to remember an era when this didn't have to be explained, if only because these activities hadn't all been collapsed into the same omnibus word yet. If your parents thought you tied up the phone line too much, they might limit your phone time. If your parents thought you spent too much time watching television, they might limit your TV time. If your parents thought you played too many video games, they might yell for you to go outside for a while.

No one confused doing too much of one with doing too much of the others. But now they've all been subsumed by a monster called Screens.

For the record: Even if you do combine them like that, the picture isn't very frightening. Two Oxford psychologists, Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, recently examined three mammoth sets of data on American and British kids; their conclusions appear in the February issue of Nature Human Behavior. The bad news is they found a negative correlation between using technology and adolescent well-being. The good news is the correlation is tiny. Being bullied has a much stronger negative correlation than using technology. Just wearing glasses has a slightly more negative correlation than using technology. Using technology is, in fact, barely more negative than regularly eating potatoes.

"When viewed in the broader context of the data, it becomes clear that the outsized weight given to digital screen-time in scientific and public discourse might not be merited," Orben and Przybylski conclude. The "evidence simultaneously suggests that the effects of technology might be statistically significant but so minimal that they hold little practical value." When they followed that up with a study in Psychological Science, this one drawing on a different set of data, Orben and Przybylski got similar results.

And of course, correlations don't tell us much about what's actually causing what. One teenager gets depressed from his interactions online; another is already depressed and goes online for comfort. In both cases, "screen time" is correlated with depression, but for one teen the screen is causing the problem and for the other the screen is curing it. Which is more common? A mere correlation won't tell you.

Society is prone to getting nervous about new technologies, and parents in particular can get nervous about pretty much anything, so there's always a market for warnings about the unprecedented threat a technology purportedly poses to your kids. And real risks and drawbacks do exist, so you should of course pay attention to what the people who study tech's effects have to say. In the case of screens, you could go to the American Academy of Pediatrics, whose website has fairly reasonable advice: Pay attention to what your kids are doing online, make sure young children have time for unplugged play, turn off the TV when no one's watching it, and so on. You might not agree with every last word of it, but it has the advantage of focusing on things like what's age-appropriate and how you're interacting with your children, not how many hours a day are spent in front of screens of any sort.

The phrase screen time does slip into the group's advice once, but not in a manner that conflates different activities. Quite the opposite. "Screen time shouldn't always be alone time," the site says. "Co-view, co-play and co-engage with your children when they are using screens—it encourages social interactions, bonding, and learning. Play a video game with your kids. It's a good way to demonstrate good sportsmanship and gaming etiquette. Watch a show with them; you will have the opportunity to introduce and share your own life experiences and perspectives, and guidance."

In other words, it's not just that there are differences between the many activities a kid can do with a screen. There are differences between the ways a kid can do those activities. A girl watching a TV show by herself is not in the same position as a girl watching the same show with a parent. There are times when your kid can get more out of watching a dumb cartoon with you than watching an educational program on her own. Enjoy it with her; talk about it with her; joke around about it with her later. It sure beats using the TV as a babysitter.

Not that you should feel terrible about occasionally using the TV as a babysitter. If you need to be left undisturbed for half an hour to make dinner, an episode of Sofia the First is not going to melt your kid's mind. The important thing isn't the screen; it's the relationship. Be judicious, use common sense, and you should be fine.