Not all "screen time" is created equal

The debates about screen time and kids are really confused: the studies have contradictory findings, and the ones that find negative outcomes in kids who spend a lot of time on their screens struggle to figure out the cause-and-effect relationship (are depressed kids using screens more because that's how they get help, or do kids become depressed if they use their screen a lot?).

It's obvious that not all screen time is created equal: games aren't social media, social media isn't Youtube. What's more, even within categories like "games," not all usage is equal: some people play group games with far-flung friends as a social, networked activity, integrating small talk about their troubles and supporting each other. Others just scream obscenities at strangers over team-speak while shooting at other strangers.

So the screen-time debate should really focus not on "time" but on "time spent": what are you doing with your screen, and why?

I once invited the eminent social scientist Mimi Ito (previously) to present on her work studying how young people use networked devices (she ran the MacArthur Digital Youth Project, the largest-ever study of young peoples' use of technology), and one of the audience members asked "What are Ipads doing to kids' brains?"

Mimi's answer went something like this: "We probably won't know the answer to that until those kids are adults and we can study large groups of them. By that time, Ipads will be long gone, replaced by something else, that will have a different effect on kids' brains, so whatever we learn from those studies still won't tell us much that's useful for guiding kids' use of technology."

Not that researchers can't or shouldn't do the hard work of untangling those associations. The ABCD Project will spend the next decade doing exactly that. Plenty of other researchers are trying to, as well. Odgers, whose lab at UC Irvine studies how technology affects adolescents' physical, emotional, and cognitive development, has helped shed light on the potential benefits of screen time. "The assumption for a lot of people panicking is: Oh my god, these phones or devices are basically causing depression or anxiety. But if you go in and talk to kids, a lot of them are turning to the internet for social support, information about symptoms, and reported feeling better about themselves when they were online than when they were off. They actually were going online to feel better."

Przybylski, at the Oxford Internet Institute, has made similar observations. In a study examining the digital habits and mental health of more than 120,000 kids, he found that a few hours of device use every day was actually associated with better well-being than none at all. The negative associations didn't crop up until kids were spending six hours or more on their devices per day—and even then, they were small and correlational.

If there's one thing that gets lost most consistently in the conversation over alluring technology, it's that our devices contain multitudes. Time spent playing Fortnite ≠ time spent socializing on Snapchat ≠ time spent responding to your colleague's Slack messages. "The time spent on digital devices is not monolithic," Dowling says. "That might seem obvious, but people tend to lump them all together." That's why researchers participating in the ABCD project make sure to differentiate between video games, social media, video chatting, and other forms of screen time. "They're still large buckets," Dowling says, "but we're starting to get some granularity there."

We've Got the Screen Time Debate All Wrong. Let's Fix It [Robbie Gonzalez/Wired]

(Image: Thom Cochrane, CC-BY)