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Posts Tagged ‘screentime


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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?
 

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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.


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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.

When I read this tweet, I thought: Here we go again — fear mongering.

When I read the article (TODAY borrowed from the NYT again), it was more a more uncertain set of answers to the question. The answers were not new to anyone following the debate, and more importantly, following the research.

The link between insert-latest-condition-to-fear (e.g., cortical thinning) directly and insert-latest-evil-to-fear (e.g., screen time) was inconclusive.

If there is a tweet that sums up the nuance is a whisper, it might be this one:

This is a continuation of yesterday’s rant on a poorly conceived video by Channel News Asia (CNA), “Can e-learning make you dumb?”.

The presenter (and his writers, if he had any) equated educational apps with e-learning. Any apps might be used for e-learning, but they do not represent e-learning. Furthermore, labelling an app “educational” does not make it so. It is about HOW any app is used that makes it useful for schooling, education, or learning. This principle seemed to be lost on the makers of the video.

Today I critique the video in the order in which its ideas were presented.
 

 
The video started with the now iconic dragon playground as a representation of how kids used to play in the past. Its message was clear — nostalgic thinking was better even if it did not consider changing contexts and fallible memories.
 
Nostalgia quote.
 
The presenter then interviewed three sets of researchers and clinicians.

The first was a researcher from the National Institute of Education, Singapore. There was nothing new from this segment if you keep up with educator blogs or current papers on screen time.

The strategy was the same — highlight unwarranted fears and conveniently leave out the importance of supervised and strategic use of apps by children.

The most alarming segment of the video started with this question from the presenter:

These apps are just bad at teaching our children. What if they could also be messing our children’s brains in the long run?

The presenter started with a tiny sample of non-identical twins (n=2) to test executive function after one twin played with app and other sat and drew. He then showed how the app-using child seemed to have problems following instructions compared to his non-app kin.

The presenter claimed that his illustration was a “ripoff” of an actual study. So was the original study just as poorly designed and implemented? Any critical thinker or researcher worth their salt would ask questions like:

  • Were there no confounding variables that could have affected the results?
  • How can anyone control for all contributing factors?
  • Were the treatments switched after a sufficiently long rest period?

The only statement from the presenter that I agree with was his admission that “this is far from a scientific experiment”. His pantomime attempt to put the app-using child in bad light was neither valid nor reliable.
 
Texting Congress 1 by afagen, on Flickr
Texting Congress 1” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by afagen
 
The presenter then interviewed two clinicians. “Interview” might be too generous; it was more like selectively confirming bias.

The first item on the interview list was the fabled harmful screen time. In doing so, they conveniently lumped all devices with screens to harmful screen time and ignored more nuanced definitions and revised guidelines from authorities like the American Pediatric Association (see this curated list of resources).

For example, one of the two clinicians pointed out the harm of passive screen time from watching too much TV. However, this did not discount active screen time.

If you do not know what active screen time looks like, I share a snapshot of future instructors I teach and mentor. This group was using apps with their learners.
 
Active screen time.
 
The other clinician said active use involved two-way communication or interaction with the environment. However, the video producers opted not to balance their bias with examples of such active screen time. They seemed to focus on children only as passive consumers and not active producers of content.
 

 
Not content to fearmonger about short-term effects of using apps, the interviewer also asked how the apps affect the career prospects of children. Read that again: Career prospects of children. This tangent then led to children leading lives of crime. I kid you not.

Reasonably logical and critical people do not need research or “research” to realise that the interviewer was over reaching here.

As if to appease the interviewer’s agenda, one researcher gave an example of a distracted child in a classroom. Really? This could be any child, app user or not, or to a child with ADHD.

There is no research that says that children sitting still are ultimately successful. Nor should there be. Not only are such studies unethical, they are illogical. No one can claim that a single factor (like app use) determines a child’s career prospects.

That same researcher suggested that a distracted child could suffer from bad grades, have poor health, and end up committing crimes. How can anyone draw a single, clear, and unbroken line that links a child’s app use to an adult’s job prospects or likelihood to commit crimes?

If the researcher was prone to exaggeration, then the interviewer was prone to oversimplification. He declared on camera:

I didn’t realise that just more screen time can develop to more crimes in society.

The real crime was that Channel News Asia pushed such drivel on screen.
 

 
The final expert interviewed by the presenter did what most people do with the delayed gratification study — misinterpret it.  The emphasis of the study was not IF a child delayed gratification, but HOW they did so.

The expert used the misinterpretation to highlight how apps provide instant gratification. Both the expert and the video producers conveniently ignored that both rewards and app use can be about the decision-making processes and the choices a child makes.

The CNA video was an attempt to pander to base fears instead of challenging viewers to look beyond the obvious. The question (“Can e-learning make you dumb?”) was designed as click bait and was a misdirect.

The answers were like a poorly written General Paper by a scatter-brained junior college (JC) student. That JC student was not a distracted app user. She was not supervised by her parents nor guided by teachers. She was not taught to question critically or research thoroughly.

An app alone cannot teach; an adult needs to be involved to monitor, moderate, and mediate. An app alone cannot make you dumb. Uninformed use, uncritical processing of the CNA video, or misguided beliefs in misinformation make you or your children dumb.

Apps do not make you dumb or keep you ignorant. Only dumb people who choose to be wilfully ignorant do.

This is a continuation of my rant against uncritical articles about limiting screen time. In the previous part, I suggested that adults not spare the ROD — reading, observing, demonstrating — or they will spoil the child.

Screen time is not singular phenomenon. Concerns about the possible effects of screens started in the television (TV) era and only recently included desktop computers, laptop computers, and mobile computing devices like slates, phones, and other handhelds. There has been decades of TV viewing to generate at least two generations of research. However, research on the smaller, mobile screen is more recent and not as comprehensive.

Most media and screen time reports refer to research and recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). This year (2016) might have been the first time the AAP took back its limits on screen time. It recognised that its blanket rules did not consider ages, contents, and contexts. For a layperson’s read on the AAP’s recent turnaround, read this Gizmodo article.

The context of use is particularly important. Consider the different possibilities when the user’s screen changes from YouTube to FaceTime to Google Docs to WhatsApp to Pokémon Go. Adults need to take a step back, reserve judgement, and consider the breadth and depth of activity that can happen in different contexts.

I return to the TODAYonline article. There is one sentence that I troubles me the most: “There is so much more for children to see and do in the world than stare at a screen.” If we bother to read and observe, we will learn that kids do more than just “stare at a screen”; they are also watching, learning, laughing, creating, communicating, collaborating, and more.

Media effects are not binary, i.e., the impact of screen is not just bad and no-screen just good. Good or bad behaviours can happen in either context. Whether enabled face-to-face or via a screen proxy, a child can bully (or be bullied), or s/he can build community. Articles that describe the false dichotomy of if-screen-then-bad and if-no-screen-then-good tend to oversimplify and mislead.
 
Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.
 
Articles like No screens, please create unnecessary divides. There is the false division of the effects of screen and no-screen activities. It also adds to the generational divide by fuelling ignorance about screen-based activities.

Adults might try to straddle divides that are complex and possibly wider with technology. While adults have experience, this same experience is double-edged: It can hold back or it can push forward. We should seek first to understand, not judge.

The mobile technology experience of adults might actually be similar to that of their kids. If adults cannot model behaviours and outcomes, I say we learn from our kids how to first adopt a mindset of growth, modify our expectations, and change our actions.

Who else should be teaching our kids? Certainly not some newspaper writers.

Readings news articles like No screens, please make me uneasy. Why?

  • Newspapers like that one still have considerable reach.
  • Some people still consider what newspapers publish more valid than other sources (check Pew Research, comScore, or other data crunchers if you do not believe me).
  • The authors of such articles like to use “research says…” or “studies have shown…”, but not actually cite the sources.
  • Such newspapers pander to what is popular instead of what is progressive.
  • Some views, particularly this one about screen time, suffer from cherry picking.

Consider the opening salvo of unoriginal statements:

  • At the dining table “no one speaks to each other”
  • “21st century parenting dilemma”
  • Kids are “addicted to gadgets”

The piece seemed to be written from a template shaped by anti-TV and mobile screen articles before it.

It also tried to look balanced, but it is not. It cannot when its leading question was “How do we get children away from the various screens in our lives?”

The article avoided strike-a-balance from the template. It was clearly about rationales, rules, limits, varied activities with family and friends, and being a role model for kids.

Taken outside the context of an anti-screen time article, there is nothing wrong with those guidelines. These should be part of parenting tests if there are any. But the adults who wrote them conveniently forgot how they might have tried to read books or comics under the blanket with a torchlight.

The screen is not the issue. Choosing to do something more interesting, not knowing how to prioritise, or just plain bad manners is.
 

 
So let us not spoil the child by sparing this ROD:

  • Read widely and openly about the issue of “screen time” (I share my findings here).
  • Observe your kids with eyes, ears, and empathy. They are simply using the media and technology available to them just as you did with yours.
  • Demonstrate with care and by example. Model expected behaviour and timeless values. Offer wisdoms, not judgement.

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