Since the first cathode ray tube began to sputter into images of people in the new technology called television (reminds me of the newness of AP Televisits, which are now becoming a routine choice for health visits to us), people have wondered, is this a damaging folly? The specter of our children giving up childhood to sit passively, glued to the television, and now, the cell phone, the game screen, has haunted parenthood, and pediatricians since the 1950’s.
This year, 2020, the question of screen time gained a new urgency as people around the world sought actions to keep from succumbing to the Pandemic of 2020, COVID-19. Here in the United States, our key strategy to avoid getting terribly sick from the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been to stay at home, the lock-down, the shelter-in-place. As readers of Real Answers know, this strategy has failed and it has worked. It clearly has slowed the spread of the virus. We have avoided losing 1 million American lives to this virus, so far. But it did not stop the spread as well as many other countries have, resulting in over 100,000 of us dying.
But staying at home is the only real chance we have, so far here in America, to avoid getting COVID-19, and it has forced schools to close, parents to work at home. Now millions of children have been stuck at home, stripped of many hours a day of being with other kids, busy in their classrooms, active in their sports, basically sitting at home with no organized activities. Worse, if parents have children at home but need to devote 8 hours a day to a home office, what allows the parent to do so while their children languish at home with nothing to do? The absence of activities outside the school puts one activity in the front of every child’s face and every parent’s mind: THE SCREEN.
So now more than ever the question remains: Is all this time on our cell phones and tablets OK? How much is OK? How much is too much? What harm is all this causing?
Despite so many years of screens, the answers remain unclear.
It may be helpful to remind ourselves of a perspective published some time ago in The New York Times.
In this article, research into the use of screens was reviewed, and some questions raised. I found one question the most compelling part of the article. Is screen time a meaningful concept anymore? Have we moved into the sort of constant and varied use that our relation to the use of these devices is now far more complex than the now outdated terms, screentime, can mean? The article offers a new word to replace screen time, the screenome. Screenome, how does that bizarre word help anything?
Think of other -omes. The biome, the gut’s microbiome, the neurome. Each use of the suffix -ome indicates we are dealing with a complex system. The neurome is the whole mass of functions performed by the neurons and other cells of the human brain. The gut microbiome is the universe of the trillions of bacteria in the human gut that interact in complex ways.
The word screenome may not be a keeper, but it brings to mind the sense that kids, and we, are no longer just having a bit of screen time meaning doing one thing on our screens. The article makes clear that the average person bops around quite a bit on our screens. We look at video clips, we play some video games, we text or connect somehow to many others, we use a host of apps, we read. Someone once related a story about a pediatrician admonishing an adolescent to stop spending so much time on social media, he replied that with the doc was a kid, she could only connect to one person at a time on a phone, now he can connect with hundreds with one social media action.
The point that is emerging is that our devices have not really changed who we are. The human mind is capable of connecting to other humans in vastly complex ways, it always has been able to do this. Long before even electricity was discovered, before the first child played a video game, or snapped a chat, humans were socially engaged across millions of people to do the most complex extraordinary things. Simply consider all the actions of the great civilizations of the world, each of which did what they did without electricity.
The use of these new devices to connect, play, talk with each other has not ushered in any materially new fact of connectivity. Humans are profoundly connectable, seek out social functioning, are social. And so the fact that research so far has not delivered clear proof of harm of the technology, per se, makes sense. In this sense, the invention of the tablet or mobile phone did not make us an extraordinarily social species, we have been all along. And, just as in times past before Instagram, people found ways to use our social abilities to cause harm, to ruin lives, even to end lives, just so we will using these devices. It remains far from clear if these devices have made us any kinder or meaner. We remain who we are, and our stories of kindness and of cruelty, continue to astound us.
One finding that was curious was that looking at patterns of use of social media can reveal someone is or may become depressed, with an accuracy that is similar to that achieved by professional psychologic evaluation. I caution readers not to conclude that use of social media causes the depression, the story instead makes clear that if depression is occurring, use of social media may shift. It appears to be the depression that causes certain patterns of use of social media, not the use of social media that causes depression.
Screen Time in the Age of COVID-19
Now, how do these interesting observations help us use screen time while we remain mostly at home?
The good news is that there is no definitive evidence that looking at a screen is harmful. Surely, there is usually something better to do with one’s time. But looking at a screen on occasion simply has not been proven to damage development, cognitively or emotionally.
On the issue of balancing care of children and work, it must be seen that this is a real problem, a deep enough one some shows on TV or educational software cannot solve alone.
We recommend parents get help! That may be each other spouse, taking turns helping engage with the kids as the other works. That may be a trusted family member who has not had many contacts with other people and so can enter your home without bringing in significant increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. Such folks with low exposure rates might also include nannies, friends, babysitters who can help. Children need some attention, particularly young children under 6 who cannot generate playtime for hours on end reliably.
Having said this, the occasional use of screen time is a very safe and appropriate tool to include with many, to help while away the loads of time now available to all of us, our children and all of us, now that we spend more time at home.
- The explosion of mobile devices and apps has thoroughly redefined how we connect with each other, especially the younger you are.
- There are plenty of stories of inappropriate use of streaming videos and of use of social media that cause harm, but the jury remains out on the actual overall impact on humanity of these new ways of connecting.
- We started the technological revolution as an extraordinarily complex social creature, it is far from clear even today how the use of social media, video games, etc. will actually alter who we are.
- It may very well turn out that whether we choose to be kind or cruel will determine much of what happens to us, more than the tools we use to relate, and live, but the answer to that question simply remains unanswered to date.
- In the teeth of the still very, very dangerous Pandemic of 2020, of COVID-19, we remain more at home than ever before. The challenge of working and caring is for real, getting help is the ultimate solution. Occasional screen time is fine.
Dr. Arthur Lavin