Screen time and kids: A real danger or a ‘moral panic’?

Pediatricians in the U.S. recommend strict screen time limits for kids. But U.K. doctors say the science backing those recommendations is not convincing.

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Children and parents hang out at the LilyPad volunteer-run play place. (Jad Sleiman/WHYY)

Children and parents hang out at the LilyPad volunteer-run play place. (Jad Sleiman/WHYY)

Anders Kosloff is 7 years old, a first grader. He never used a computer before kindergarten.

“I thought it was kind of tricky to actually operate the mouse,” he said. “I would move the mouse, and then it would like just go off the screen or something, or just go somewhere that I didn’t want it to go.”

He got the hang of it quickly enough. But today, Anders still has almost no screen time at home. His mom, Maria Hughes, volunteers at a play center for city parents where there are no screens either.

Parents interviewed there were all a bit spooked by screens, and by how quickly their kids seemed to get hooked on tablets and smartphones. There’s no shortage of warnings about screens and their effect on kids — everything from eyesight to school performance. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict limits on kids’ screen time — for instance, only one hour a day from age 2 to 5.

But in the U.K., pediatric guidelines released early this year have no limits on screens, except for an hour before bedtime. Doctors there say the supposed risks are overblown, and that screens play an important role in society.

Max Davie is a pediatrician in London who helped craft the new guidance from the Royal College of Pediatric and Child Health. He said today’s fears about screens are nothing new: They continue a long trend of new tech causing anxiety about kids’ development.

“Every generation has its own moral panics,” he said. “Novels have been subject to a moral panic during the Victorian era. There were very prominent voices saying that this was going to ruin children’s brains because they would be reading these sensational novels and instead of reading the Bible, and prior to that it was writing. Socrates had a big problem with writing because it was going to make people too lazy to remember things.”

Davie deals with a lot of child-behavioral problems in his practice, and he was frustrated by the ease with which parents would blame screens for issues at home.

“If you’re not sleeping because you are up playing ‘Fortnite’ until midnight and you have school the next day, clearly that is a negative effect, but the effect is mediated by the lack of sleep more than by the direct exposure to screens,” he said.

Another example: “If the child is having a speech delay, for instance, reflect on the fact that maybe there is a lack of face-to-face interaction within the family that might be contributing to that,” he said. “This might need to be addressed, rather than making a kind of blanket recommendation across the population.”

Instead of limits, the new guidance in the U.K. advises parents to ask some questions: Is screen time interfering with family time, things like meals? Are screens interfering with sleep? Is there uncontrolled, unhealthy snacking during screen time?

If the answers to these questions are healthy, Davie said, the level of screen time is probably healthy.

Davie and his colleagues are generally skeptical of the screen-limit recommendations in the United States and say the science backing those guidelines is not convincing.

He pointed to a researcher who did a sort of study of all these studies. Andy Przybylski is an experimental psychologist and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

He said to create a study you need three things: “There’s predictors, things like screen time or social-media use. There’s outcomes, these are things you care about in kids, things like well-being, depression, sleep,” he said. “Then there are control variables, like background context.”

You plug all that into some pretty complicated math, and out come correlations and trends. But Przybylski warned that it’s easy to get lost in the data.

“With one of these datasets, we found that there were well over 6 billion different ways to analyze the data,” he said. “We could have written 11,000 papers that showed that there was a tiny negative effect of social media on depression. We could have written 4,000 papers that said that there was no effect, and we could have written 2,000 papers that showed that there was a small positive effect.”

Przybylski is basically saying there are so much data out there that, depending on how you slice and dice them, you can come up with many different outcomes. He warned that scientists and researchers can easily fall victim to their own biases without realizing it — or worse, can cherry-pick to confirm conclusions they already hold.

To demonstrate how easy this is, Przybylski crunched the numbers on exposure to potatoes and glasses among children.

“I look [at] the table, and then I read very quickly: Potatoes is .86 and glasses is .145,” he said. “So, yeah, so eating potatoes is 86 percent as bad for you as screen time and having glasses is roughly 45 percent worse for you.”

But there is one study that passes even Przybylski’s scrutiny.

“It’s called the ABCD study. It’s the study of about 10,000 young people all around the U.S., and they are giving them behavioral tasks,  giving them questionnaires,” he said. “And they’re doing, a bunch of brain scans, both the resting and task-based scans.”

It’s from the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S., and researchers say they have found actual changes in the brains of children with more than seven hours of screen time a day. But they caution they don’t yet know if the changes are actually caused by screens, or even if the changes are bad changes. Which gets to Przybylski’s caveat:

“It’s an ongoing project. We’re in year one of 10 with it. And so we’re working with the data, and we’re analyzing the brain-development data,” he said. “So if anybody tells you a confirmed finding from the ABCD Dataset, right now, they’re probably selling snake oil.”

The science is still out on a lot of factors related to screen time, and Przybylski said there’s something else to consider when thinking about limiting screens.

“The U.N. Charter on the Rights of the Child says that young people have a right to information and a right to play,” he said. “So if the main ways, if one of the main ways the kids play and become informed about themselves and their world is via technology and via screens, then you’re potentially violating their human rights on some level.”

Of course, some would argue that’s kind of a parent’s job.

This article has been updated to correct Anders Kosloff’s last name.

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