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Posts Tagged ‘screentime

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Today I reflect on Larry Cuban’s two-part musing [Part 1] [Part 2] on screen time. Being an older but progressive-minded gent, I expected Cuban to lean on reason instead of fear-by-numbers.

He started by pointing to published statistics that “screen time” had increased in children across age groups despite various agencies creating time-based rules for using technology (see list in Part 2). 

I was not surprised about the increase given how those rules tend to ignore quality of task in favour of quantity of time. They might also forget that both students and their working caregivers rely on those screens for study or work, and for entertainment or relaxation. 

Cuban ended Part 1 by citing examples of how parents felt like hypocrites for using the same technologies that they denied their kids. But their hearts were in the right place — they wanted their kids to spend quality time with their loved ones.

If only they also used their minds to critically examine their actions. The examples were  technologically deterministic, i.e., the use of mobile phones was responsible for low/no social interaction in person. 

And yet they claimed that other technologies like typewriters, phone books, or maps brought them together. They conveniently forgot that the context of a task (like family time) and the strategy for enabling that task (come learn what we used to do in the past) are just as important.

In Part 2 of his musings, Cuban started with lists from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They were negative exposures and possible harmful results due to screen time. I agree with Cuban’s reaction:

Based on the studies I have seen, I cannot say with a high degree of certainty that such issues will arise because with so many family and individual variables, a causal link between watching screens and children developing social, psychological, and emotional problems is tough to pin down.

Cuban then shared those horrible screen limits based on age groups. They are pointless because the 60+ studies he mentioned in Part 1 already established that screen time increased among 89,000 kids worldwide.

What matters more is the difficult job of parenting, not blind rule following. What could parents do? They might “turn off all screens during family meals and outings” or “avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums”.

Cuban then shifted his attention to parental influence on technology use in schools. He recommended that parents go beyond the superficial “why is the school adopting devices for all students?” question. Instead he posed questions of this own:

Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Cuban then concluded with a common refrain: The screen time in schools mirrors what is happening at work. The boundaries of what separates school/work and personal lives are eroding. 

I would add to that conclusion by pointing out that arbitrary screen time rules try to reduce a complex issue to simple numbers. This approach is ineffective. 

What remains relevant is informed parenting and progressive pedagogy. Both start with a humble skepticism of questioning articles that paint fear-by-numbers and make unwarranted claims. You might develop this attitude and ability by reading thoughtful pieces like Cuban’s, but you can only do so with a device with a screen.

The triggering press, uninformed parents, and well-meaning teachers have this in common — screen time for kids is bad. This is despite research that indicates that not all screen time is bad and that the quality of screen tasks is more important than the quantity of screen time.

One objection is that screen time harms the eyesight of children. Concerned adults like to point out how more kids seem to be sporting spectacles nowadays. They might even have the data to show this.

Video source

They should heed the video above. It explains why shortsightedness is more common now. 

Developmental physiology reveals that our eyes change shape as we get older. This normally stops so that we have good eyesight after infancy.

However, the video also reveals that this physiological change is happening over a longer period and leads to more myopic children. The change is driven by dopamine [example of research] and the level of this hormone is influenced by the amount of natural (outdoor) light each child experiences.

So the data indicate that shortsightedness is not caused by increased use of screens. It is a reduced exposure to natural light that contributes to the increased incidents of myopia.

The video was not an attempt to address misconceptions about screen time. It tried to inform us about what contributes to myopia. It is up to us to be more clear-eyed about such information, e.g., help kids balance indoor and outdoor activities, instead of being shortsighted and blaming screen use.

What is the point of getting older without also getting a bit grumpier? That might be the leading question for this aging edtech consultant.

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Today I add to my lists [1] [2] [3] of popular but uncritical buzzwords or phrases.

Addiction: Specifically to any and all technology, e.g., games, social media, YouTube. The “addiction” used loosely by popular media and the layperson is different what a clinical psychologist might have in mind. 

An actual addiction needs to be medically diagnosed as chronic, compulsive, and harmful, and be treatable. This is in contrast to the flippant lay use, e.g., addicted to TikTok, followed by a laugh and/or a shrug of the shoulders. Casual and frequent use does not necessarily equate to addiction.

Addiction is sometimes followed by the next two phrases.

Digital detox: As if technology is inherently poisonous, some folks think that it is cool or fashionable to go retreats where they have no mobile or wifi signal and gadgets are banned.

Somehow the very same devices they rely on for work or to maintain quality of life need to be avoided. They shift the blame on the technology and conveniently ignore personal responsibility and self-management when using such tools.

Instead of a digital detox, what these folk might need is a mindset reset.

Screen time: Oh, this old egg. I do my best to crack it with every batch of teachers and educators I meet, but most seem brainwashed with this yolk of an issue.

There still is a focus among early childhood educators and parents about the quantity of screen time instead of the quality of the same. Why deny kids the responsible use of tools they will grow up with?

These adults have no shame in denying screens to their kids while not modelling responsible behaviours themselves. They also forget how modern and information-based workers need screen time to communicate, cooperate, and create. 

I do not mind being a buzzkill for buzzwords that mislead or obscure. It is a hobby of Curmudgeon Man!

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Both the individuals who tweeted that social media is not inherently harmful expressed their righteous indignation. 

But opinion is not fact. Facts are backed up with rigorous research and critical analysis of data on “screen time” and “addiction”. I curate a running list on those topics at Diigo.

For example, the latest two articles are summaries offered by The Conversation

If we want to create conditions for change, we need not just righteous indignation, we also need research-based indignation. Most people will shout down the former because there is no firm ground on any side. Some people are going to ignore the latter, but at least we have a firm foundation to stand tall on.

The thoughts and article in the tweet below are not mainstream fodder. However, they are important and nuanced examinations of current socio-technical issues.

This is just one of many issues that are central or adjacent to education. 

Parents and teachers need to know how representatives of popular media do not often read or represent research articles to inform accurately. They wish to sell their brands and to keep eyeballs on their pages.

They stoke fear and worry because they know that this works in the short term. Paying attention to possible dangers is a built-in survival strategy. But the long-term effect of using this strategy is that it is purely reactionary. 

We need to be better than this. We need to be nuanced, critical, and reflective.

Video source

Here we go again. A representative of local mass media has a piece on screen time.

CNA propagated without first critically analysing what screen time is or means. It merely transferred responsibility by mentioning a local authority. I had to search for it.

The YouTube page mentioned the Academy of Medicine but did not link to it. That site seemed to be built from a portal template and was hideously cluttered. Good luck finding anything not about COVID-19!

Unfortunately, I was right. Neither “screen time” or “activity guidelines” yielded any returns. The search just froze at “Loading…”.

Screenshot of AMS empty search result.

Of the three major news sources, only one provided a direct link to the article titled Singapore Integrated 24-Hour Activity Guidelines For Children and Adolescents.

Here is a video screenshot of one such guideline as reported by CNA.

Screenshot of CNA programme on recommended screen time.

Such “news” makes me want to scream. But I recap what I have reflected on previously.

  • Using the two-hour limit is equivalent to spoon feeding parents with the “how much” without considering “what form” and “why”. It promotes lazy thinking.
  • The quantity-based guideline hides the quality of the task. I argue that consuming one minute of a self harm video is worse than three straight hours of pursuing a new passion like learning a new language. The nature of the task should precede its duration.
  • The information to limit kids to two hours does not actually inform. It feeds already uninformed and irrational fears, e.g., bad for eyes, anti-social behaviour.

The two-hour guideline is the fifth of ten items in the AMS article:

Segment from

While the guideline has good reason to promote non-screen activities like outdoor exercise and getting enough sleep, it does not emphasise good screen use habits like looking up and away (example: the 20-20-20 rule, see item 3) and establishing family rules [1] [2] [3].

Simply implying that screen time is bad does not take into account modern life. We need screens to work, school, and socialise — the current pandemic has made that clear. Some even exercise indoors with screens, e.g., stationary bike with screens, pilates on YouTube.

I say we use reason and longitudinal data on “screen time” instead of feeding into fears. Furthermore, if we suspect that that kids are not exercising as much as we once were, we need to first ask why our past behaviours or a number is the standard. We should also question the logic of blaming screen-based devices for causing physical or social ills — what else could be causal or a contributor, and why?

Video source

If we remain level-headed, we stay open to contrary findings that kids do know how to find a balance, socialise conventionally, seek exercise, and adapt to the circumstances they are dealt with [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9].

But do not take my word for it. Consider just a few of the references I numbered above, this Nature article, and a researcher’s tweet thread below.

The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small, explaining at most 0.4% of the variation in well-being. Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.

This op ed piece pushes the screen time debate to a better place than fear-mongering. It points a finger to the very people who fear out of ignorance.

The ignorance is not about the research on screen time or what growing up looks like now. It is about parental roles in oversharing, negatively modelling, and ignoring the collection and use of private data.

So instead of focusing on kids’ screen time, perhaps adults should screen their own habits and biases.

Video source

This video is as much about misconceptions surrounding screen time as it is about:

  • Reading beyond headlines
  • Understanding how newspapers are not journals
  • Distinguishing engagement and accuracy; statistical significance and effect size; correlation and causation

It also illustrated how large sample sizes can make tiny effects statistically significant even though they have no practical significance.

For example, the video cited a study in Nature Human Behaviour that had a sample size of 355,358 adolescents. The video (also this article in Vox) highlighted how the study found that “wearing eyeglasses and eating potatoes also had significant yet small negative effects on teens’ wellbeing”. And yet we do not vilify either.

Add to that the fact that researchers have to decide where cut-offs are that distinguish statistically significant effects from non-significant ones (e.g., P value 0.01 vs 0.05). The same researchers or the agencies they work for might also make cut-offs like recommended screen times of no more than one hour before age five, even if the evidence does not support strict limits for any age groups.

TLDR? Newspapers oversimplify complex phenomena by providing easy answers. Real learning is not in taking these answers at face value. It happens when you explore nuance and depth instead.

According to these archived newspaper clips, there were people who feared for their young as the latter were drawn to reading off paper and books.

Do you see a pattern with respect to the worries about screen time now? If not, consider how people have always feared emerging technologies through the ages.

Fear of the New.

Note: I shared the graphic above in 2015 and it was originally created by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham in their book Bad For You. The image was shared here in 2013.

History repeats itself. Sometimes it has to because we do not learn. Sometimes it does so because we do not change.

Ignoring one another with papers and phones.

Saying that water is wet is to speak the obvious. What was obvious to me when I read this Wired article about screen time was how ignorant fear drives more policy than researched information.

In disputing one of the questionable findings about brain cortex thinning, the author wrote:

…the observation that an activity changes the structure or function of an adolescent’s gray matter is the scientific equivalent of observing that water is wet. Many childhood activities alter the brain; what matters is the downstream effects of the alterations.

Even a researcher behind the study cautioned against misinterpreting and misreporting:

“It’s a very complicated question, so people often oversimplify this kind of research,” says neurobiologist Gaya Dowling, NIH director of the ABCD project. “Like the cortical thinning I mentioned on 60 Minutes: We don’t know if it’s good or bad—we just know that it is. That’s one message that got lost in recent coverage of our study: We’re seeing these associations, but we don’t yet know what they mean.”

What is obvious to the research literate is that scientific studies often highlight more questions than reveal answers. They also reveal uncertainties and cast doubt, but all in a systematic way. If you do not realise or communicate this aspect, you cannot report the research or shape policy.

Fear and bad news sells. They also spread faster than fact and truth. These statements should be as obvious as “water is wet”. So read everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.

As one wise person once said to me: It is important to have an open mind, but not so much that rubbish falls in.

It is important to have an open mind, but not so much that rubbish falls in.


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