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Is screen time damaging for your kids? No study can tell you that | Oliver Burkeman


Is too much screen time bad for your kids? Don’t look to this column for an answer. The truth is, nobody knows. The unceasing pendulum of lifestyle advice is currently swinging through a “debunking” phase, with numerous articles insisting it’s all been a big panic over nothing. But that’s partly because a report published earlier this year, by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there wasn’t enough evidence to give firm guidelines to parents. As the paediatricians explained, though, the key problem is that sufficient high-quality research has yet to be conducted – a conclusion that somehow got turned into this headline, on the parenting website Motherly: “How harmful is screen time for kids? Not as bad as we may think”. The article was sponsored by the US mobile company Verizon – though science has yet to inform us if this was a matter of causation or merely correlation.

Of course, there are valid research findings in this area: there’s evidence that excessive childhood TV time is correlated with obesity and poorer mental health, while social media use probably isn’t often a direct cause of teenage depression. And some studies are better designed than others. But neither opponents nor proponents of screen time have much incentive to mention a more unsettling fact – that it’s almost certainly impossible to know whether too much screen time would clearly damage your kids. The reasons aren’t surprising: human lives are extraordinarily complex things, and no study that aims to say anything meaningful about the population at large can do justice to the innumerable variables at work in your particular family.

So maybe screen time is bad for your kids, but not as bad as the parenting they’d receive if you didn’t plonk them in front of a screen so you could get a quick nap? Or maybe it’s good, but less good than the alternatives. Some research suggests screen time has powerful educational benefits; but obviously that depends not only on what your kids are watching, but on what they’d be doing with their time if they weren’t glued to the iPad. Maybe social media triggers depression in children only very rarely – but what if yours is that rare case? And on it goes.

Researchers can control for some of these factors: for example, they try to ensure that when they detect a link between screen time and obesity, they’re not really just detecting effects of poverty. But you can’t control for each human life.

None of which makes this kind of research utterly valueless as life advice; it’s useful as general guidance for what’s likely to lead to good outcomes, all else being equal. But it does mean that anxiously attempting to implement such findings in your life, adjusting your behaviour to each new wrinkle in the science, is a mug’s game. In fact, in the case of parenting, it’s worse than that, because the anxiety you’ll broadcast in your efforts to follow the latest rules might prove just as detrimental to your children as if you’d failed to follow them.

Perhaps we need more research into what happens when parents try too hard to obey parenting research. Maybe sometimes, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, they screw you up, as a direct result of attempting not to.

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In her 2004 book What Mothers Do (Especially When It Looks Like Nothing), Naomi Stadlen makes the case for not trying to follow other people’s parenting advice.

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Source: TheGuardian