Is too much screen time bad for you? We live on a razor’s edge, so it seems, with peril at every turn. It’s a well-known fact that too much of anything is bad for you including some things you wouldn’t expect. Certain healthy and somewhat innocuous foodstuffs can be harmful, or even lethal, in the wrong amounts. An excess of bananas (potassium overdose), carrots (turn your skin orange), liquorice (causes heart arrhythmia), nutmeg (causes hallucinations) and soy sauce (internal bleeding) can lead to health problems, largely temporary ones, and alarmingly drinking too much water can dilute your blood sodium level to such an extent that it can put you in a coma. This segues neatly into the recent report by UCL that there is little evidence that excessive screen time ‘in itself’ is harmful to children’s health but rather the side effects of excessive use. When it says ‘screen time in itself’ this does not mean what the child is doing online and there is strong evidence that there is a link between excessive social media use and depression, especially amongst girls, and certain online activities affecting mental health, but that’s a different discussion.
The generation gap
The study focuses on time spent using screens which could be TV, mobiles, tablets, and other devices and concludes that parents should chill out a bit about the effect that a screen can have on their kids’ health. But, it was ever thus. When I was a lad, I was told that too much TV would give me square eyes. It was difficult to get too much kids’ TV in the 70s and 80s between 4.00pm and 5.40pm and an hour and forty minutes of TV a day seems to have had little effect on my lateral rectus and superior oblique.
However, there is always a panic when new technology becomes mainstream and to some quarters it heralds the descent of society into moral destitution and depravity. The last century saw the invention of movies, radio, television and movies with sound, all of which caused an outcry (usually amongst the preceding generation) when they became widespread and affordable. The biggest breakthrough when I was a kid was video recorders which enabled me to increase my meagre one hour forty minutes of screen time to however long I could get away with it for. ‘However long I could get away with it for’ is the key bit. All kids will try and get away with what they can but every now and then I was told to turn it off and go and do something else instead, like play out – I was parented and my screen time was monitored.
Millennials are wrongly maligned for all sorts of reasons (spend a day in our office to see the hard-working energetic young talent or watch University Challenge for proof of this), more often it seems in my experience by Baby Boomers, because they ‘were out playing in the street and had to make their own entertainment instead of staring like zombies at a screen’. This is true, but that’s because they didn’t have affordable screens and mobile devices. If they did, they would probably have been guilty of the same thing and I’m pretty sure that there was a fair bit of sneaking the wireless to bed to listen to Radio Luxembourg under the covers. It’s not all boomers though. By comparison, my stepdad rang a few weeks ago to ask if I could offer advice about getting ‘a computer with the internet’ but my 77-year-old dad is Captain Gadget and has embraced the technological world with gusto (but he’s a little suspicious of Alexa).
Has anything really changed?
In our lifetimes, we Generation X-ers have seen possibly the greatest advancements in entertainment technology from affordable colour TV to the incredible power of smartphones in the space of only forty years, however I’m still waiting for my hoverboard that Michael J. Fox promised me. Device technology these days is pretty mind-blowing but it’s our kids that are the subject of this report and it is now our job to tell them to switch off and go and do something else – the rules haven’t changed but it’s really the ‘time spent’ that has always been the issue rather than the activity itself. The side effects, mentioned above, of tech are the same as the side effects of too much VCR, too much listening to the radio and oddly enough to an extent, too much reading. These activities can be educational, horizon-expanding, fun, relaxing, escapism, enlightening but they can also be solitary activities, and this means they impinge on social interaction, family time, sleep and exercise. In other words, they need to be done in moderation and not at the expense of other things. It’s a strange paradox to tell your kid to stop reading and go to sleep and I was told not to read at the dinner table when I was young. I thought it was because it was rude but I think it was really because meal time should be family time, i.e. a time to interact.
Because of the lack of evidence to support the theory that screen time is bad for kids’ health, UCL said it couldn’t offer any time guidelines. And nor should they really, and besides, someone somewhere would start complaining about ‘the nanny state’. It did suggest four questions to ask to help families come up with their own restrictions: Is your family’s screen time under control? Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do? Does screen use interfere with sleep? Are you able to control snacking during screen time? Dr Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH (The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health) who worked in conjunction with UCL on the study, is absolutely right when he said that, “Screens are part of modern life. The genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back.” Screens are part of our everyday lives now in work, rest and play, so we need to take control of them. We cannot uninvent them.
Parents these days don’t face more difficult challenges monitoring kids’ activities, it’s just a different medium. The only thing that arguably makes it slightly harder is the sheer wealth of choice available online, way beyond the ninety minutes of children’s TV I had. There are literally billions and billions of hours of entertainment online now and it’s easy for kids to sit all day (and night) and be entertained without ever getting bored or ‘there being nothing on’ but we as parents have the power to restrict screen time. This amazing choice, evidentially, means kids are fatter now than they were a generation ago. But, we’re fatter adults too – we’re a fatter nation than we were because we move around less. This is partly to do with the same technology that we as adults use, but also because public transport is generally crap so we all have cars which are relatively cheaper than they were thirty or forty years ago. Let’s look at ourselves: how many of us as Gen X adults and parents are never further than six feet away from our smartphones, or binging on a box set on Netflix, or flicking through a million terrible cable channels? Kids learn from their parents – perhaps we should monitor our own screen time to set an example and ‘go out and do something less boring instead’. And maybe ease off on the tempura carrots and soy sauce?
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