Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won. New York Times Reasons to read: We normally don’t share a frustrating piece like this one. But, we feel it’s important to understand the current context of our work. While some proclaim that screen time has “won” during this pandemic, we know things aren’t so simple. Note the voices of Action Network members Rhonda Moskowitz and Emily Cherkin featured. They don’t agree either.
This is a tough time to be a low screen time advocate, for sure. We’re hearing all kinds of people—professionals and even those who have condemned screens for their detriment to children’s sense of self and sense of the world around them—resorting to recommendations that throw caution to the wind. Far from promoting balance at this stressful time, these pundits seem to be suffering from selective memory loss.
Believe me, I know it is hard. My full-time job is reducing children’s screen time and even I want to just pat parents on the back and say, "It’s really OK to hand them the iPad when you’re losing it." But, those kinds of compassionate phrases can only be effective with a few strong caveats.
First, nothing we know about the harms of screen overuse has changed. To jog our collective memory, just about a year ago the World Health Organization (WHO) released a recommendation of little to no screen time for children under 5 years old. “Childhood is a time of rapid development and a time when family patterns can boost health gains,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, citing concerns about screen impacts on brain development and overall health. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a $300 million project known as the ABCD Study on adolescent brain cognitive development with a strong focus on screen immersion and its impact on the pruning of neural networks. And our colleague, Dr. John Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital released a study that shows more screen use can alter brain structure in children.
Second, nothing about how children develop has changed. Many decades of research tell us that young children learn by using their whole bodies and all of their senses. Neurons strengthen as children receive eye contact and active, caring responses from loving adults. In the first few years of life, the brain grows as children find their own toes, for instance, feel a carpet, look for and find a stuffed animal, and hear their parents’ voices. Creative play teaches children math, language, cooperation, initiative, as they participate in the process of building ideas. Transferring the time needed for these activities to a screen creates displacement, which cannot be replaced once missed. Screen content is a symbolic representation of the real world. Not the real world.
Third, marketing to vulnerable children is ramping up. You better believe corporations are going to use social distancing as a time to target the wrong kind of consumption. A recent report by Tubular Labs, a video analytics platform, reports that toy content accounts for 1 out of every 4 views on kids media and that dedicated food and drink advertising got 28% more views in the last week—and we’re not talking about ads for celery and milk. While we’re loosening our strict screen rules, our content QA advice needs to go into overdrive.
Finally, we must realize that we could very well be creating a monster. (Let’s turn our heads away from that beast for today. We’ll talk more about that next week.)
So while most of us screen time vigilantes have to lighten up, we don’t have to forget. Parents still want what’s best for their children in the long run. We’re here at the Action Network for a reason—to support each other in what we know. Do your best at this unprecedented juncture. But, also trust that the work you’ve done to this point is still needed, perhaps more than ever.