Do We Really Need To Worry About Screen Time?

From A Speech Pathologist: The Worry About Screen Time Has Been Taken Too Far

Five year old boy on digital tablet at night
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If you’re a parent of young kids, you’re probably aware that screen time is a hot topic. Especially now, as we’re wrapping up one year of various degrees of lockdown, well-meaning advocates remind parents regularly that too much screen time is bad for your kids. Headlines highlight the increase in screen time that the pandemic has brought on, and experts “worry” about the effects on development. For me, as a speech-language pathologist and the mom of two preschool aged kids, I’m not sure that the debate around screen time deserves so much attention.

Why all the worry? There’s research that’s linked differences in white matter organization in the brain, those associated with language impairment, with increased screen exposure at young ages. There are trends between increased screen time and obesity. We know that environmental factors can impact brain development. So if that’s true, why wouldn’t I want to do everything in my power to protect my kids from even the most circumstantial possibility of very damaging effects of screen time?

Claims that screen time has a causal relationship with poor development puts unreasonable blame on parents. 

The impact of screen time on development is an amazingly complicated topic. And just like with every other amazingly complicated development topic, it’s incredibly hard to determine a causal link. Instead, most of what we learn highlights factors that are correlated with, or related to, development. In reality, it’s very often impossible to determine exactly what the underlying cause of developmental concerns or speech and language delay may be for any one individual. And there’s an implication in the messaging behind screen time that suggests that, by letting your kids zone out in front of the screen, you are ruining their brain.

There may be methodological concerns with studies that purport to examine relationships between screen usage and developmental measures. This is in part because the number of minutes in front of a screen is really very arbitrary in terms of understanding everything else that could impact development. What did the child do when they weren’t exposed to screen time? What were they watching and were caregivers present to help augment the experience with questions and comments? Is there some bias in data where external factors such as parent stress may be related to how much time a day a child is in front of a TV? Some research that’s tried to address these types of study limitations suggests that there is no long-term detrimental impact on individuals who had early screen time.

Parenting creates what often feels like a never-ending number of decisions to make on your child’s behalf and feeling confident that you’re making the best decisions to help your child grow and develop to reach their maximum potential is hard, especially when a child has special needs. Adding a layer of suggestion that actually your decisions may contribute to them having a disability is just downright terrifying. Isn’t nine months of guilt about drinking a daily cup of coffee during pregnancy enough? Do we really need to terrorize the parents of young kids by implying that their child’s problems may be due to parenting decisions made early on in development?

I think part of the reason for this type of conclusion comes from the fact that it’s very easy for one person to look at data and say, “sure, screen time is associated with poor developmental outcomes in X domain.” This isolated fact then gets blasted around the internet and social media. But we have to resist the urge to promote incomplete information about complicated topics. To every parent of a child with developmental challenges, it feels like a sucker punch. Because those parents are working double time trying to help their child improve their skills in areas of need. I know this as a professional who spends a lot of time talking with parents about their child’s development, and as a parent who has a child with speech and language impairment myself.

To this point, there is no evidence to my knowledge that would indicate that a child’s parent can cause a language impairment in any typical type of scenario of parent-child interaction. There are examples of cases of neglect and abuse that can lead to overall cognitive and language impairment. There is evidence that language stimulation can help spark children’s use of language.

However, to the best of our knowledge, children are essentially hard wired to learn speech and language skills. The process comes biologically preloaded and will essentially unfold naturally with the type of interactions that parents love to engage in with their babies and toddlers. For some children, this natural skill development is more challenging for any number of reasons—we know there are genetic forces at play for some variations of speech and language impairment (definitely runs in my family!), and there’s a vast array of neurological diversity that we’re only in the early stages of understanding that may influence how an individual child learns to “crack the code” of language. Parents, by letting their child watch TV shows or play games on a tablet, are unlikely to derail this biological process of language development and cause a language impairment.

Claims about negative impact from screen time imply that developmental concerns are “bad.”

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One of the more subtly negative effects of the arguments about screen time needing to be avoided or reduced to help promote development is an implied message that it’s “bad” to have lower scores on different types of developmental outcomes. What if instead, as a society, we accept those with different strengths and weaknesses?

If it is the case that kids who have more clocked hours of screen time have measurable differences in brain wiring—why is the reaction to this news that screen time is bad? Why are these differences in neural structure, even if they’re associated with differences in language processing, given any kind of value judgment? Differences in learning, language processing, speaking—these are unique and individual characteristics.

Individuals who struggle with processing or learning in one domain very often have incredible strengths in another. There’s been a great push in recent years to embrace neurodiversity and reject ableist messaging. Perhaps some kids who are strong visual processors, and potentially weak language processors, are drawn to screens because the visual image makes sense to them. Maybe we’re not measuring a negative effect of screens, but instead just capturing a naturally occurring phenomenon. Some people have language impairment. Some people learn better in modalities not traditionally used in mainstream education. Some people may really like videos and visual input.

In fact, technology brings immense opportunities to support learning, and may be particularly well-suited for visual learners. Skills like recall of parts of a story and verb learning have been supported by using well-designed, technology driven, screen delivered teaching or intervention. For some learners, the visual, video capable, and interactive nature of programs designed to be delivered via screen are helpful tools.

The debate about screen time doesn’t account for the ways we use mobile devices and technology to enhance our lives.

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Sometimes I feel like a lot of the debate around screen time stems from alarmist perspectives about the Downfall of Society. The argument isn’t just that screen time is bad, it’s that there’s a lost connection, a lost way of living, that kids tuned in to screens like zombies will never experience. I think this worry is a little extreme and it’s one that’s repeated over and over throughout history about various topics.

A personal example that comes to mind is a brunch with friends years ago, before any of us had kids. One friend was stuck at home, sick. The group of us who were there were texting her, talking with each other about the replies, and generally having a good time. A passer-by said something (presumably about us and so we could hear) to the effect of “it’s so sad how people are on their phones instead of talking to the people right in front of them.” I remember thinking that was sort of missing the point. We were using our phones to connect with each other even though we were all together in the same place. Plus, we were including someone who genuinely wasn’t able to be with us physically.

Every parent I know is trying to manage a thousand moving pieces and mobile technology can be a huge asset to feeling like you’re not a million steps behind. For some parents, myself included, the ability to be present with my children and also get a few tasks done for work on my phone helps me feel more connected with them—not less. Surveys that ask whether kids feel ignored by their parents when they use their phone may fail to ask extensive questions about other things parents do that make their kids feel ignored. My kids intermittently hate it when I cook meals, eat meals, vacuum, go outside to throw out the trash, read a magazine, want to go to bed early or sleep in late…basically anything I do when they want me to do something else. What’s important is that parents feel supported to be able to structure their day, work time and family time, in a way that makes sense for them so they have the energy to give their child some undivided attention.

Technology also offers us tools for encouraging language development and connecting with kids. My preschooler loves looking at pictures of things that we’ve done, and nothing gets him chattering more than seeing a photo of himself or his brother doing something fun. For a little one with emerging language skills, having pictured support to talk about what we did is a wonderful tool to help encourage talking. What may start out as me picking up my phone to check my email can grab his attention from a previous solo activity and send him over to engage. In this way, my use of tech actually helps increase the opportunities for connecting, weaved throughout the day.

Repeating blanket statements about the negative effects of screen time takes too much time away from talking about other things. 

Not acknowledging the nuances of technology usage and screen time among families creates a warped reality in which we are all apparently addicted to screens. If screens are “bad” always, then there’s less of an opportunity to talk about scenarios when screen time is or is not a cause for concern. We’re using our resources and energy in the wrong way.

Being buried in your phone while a child plays on a playground is potentially dangerous because you could miss an opportunity to save them from a fall. Texting while driving is dangerous. Making judgments about when to effectively accomplish work tasks on your phone as a parent, or letting your kids watch a show on a tablet while you make dinner or try to get some work done, is an issue of day planning—not safety. Some parents may struggle with addiction to the internet or their mobile device—those parents need support to understand and change their behavior and identify underlying issues that may be at play. If we resist the urge to label screens as universally “bad” and something that we need to continuously try to decrease usage of, then we can focus our efforts on embracing the good to enhance our lives and helping those who may truly be struggling due to unhealthy dependence on screen-delivered stimuli.

A never-ending barrage of the same anti-screen message doesn’t offer solutions—it just agitates with a tired threat of a problem. What if instead, we could just settle on a compromise, like screens are totally fine if you use them to improve your family’s life? In whatever way that means for you, the parent who knows your needs better than anyone else. Then, we could spend more time talking about meaningful solutions focused on helping kids communicate wants and needs effectively, supporting visual learners, and connecting more authentically with those who are important in our lives. Maybe those solutions will include screens and maybe they won’t, maybe they will for some but not for others, but does it really matter if they work?