As a part of Techfestival 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was asked to present my thoughts on kids, screens, and technology. In order to get the nuances right, I wrote a speech. You can read it below.
Let me tell you a familiar story.
Imagine young people longing for an alternate reality. One where regular rules of life do not apply, and one where your imagination prevails. Their parents worry, because this alternate reality is so compelling that these young people sometimes don’t want to leave it. They don’t want to go outside – they have all they need from their new world. Some of them never want to go back to the realities of everyday life.
Margaret Cohen, a professor at Stanford, described these young people as “considered to be in danger of not being able to differentiate between fiction and life”.
Does this sound familiar?
I am of course talking about women reading fictional books, in the late 1800s. In particular, reading the novel “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert.
To continue quoting from Margaret Cohen – who is a professor at Stanford, but in French literature:
“I think Flaubert is channeling a century of worries about young women as particularly susceptible to the fantasies they find in novels and the seductions of reading”.
I say this not to disparage the current concerns about screens and children – quite the opposite. Concerns about our young are in fact very common, and have been so for hundreds of years. These concerns also tend to accelerate as new types of media have been introduced.
But as this is a familiar situation – historically speaking – we can also benefit from learning what the actual outcomes of many of these changes have been. What turned out to be true, false – and what was completely unexpected? Delightful, even? And how should we think about new technologies when it comes to our children? This is what I’m going to talk about today.
How can we talk about screen time without knowing what is taking place on the screen?
I intentionally chose the example of books as it represents a media format that is not only accepted, but almost universally seen as preferable. Books are great. Books for kids are great. Kids that read books are great.
While I don’t disagree with these statements, I do think it is an overly simplistic way of describing reality. So let’s go more granular. Is it good that kids read books? Generally speaking, yes, right? Is it good that kids read any type of book? Not necessarily. You wouldn’t choose “50 Shades of Grey” as a bedtime story for a preschooler, for instance.
Hence, saying that “books are good” is less useful than saying “some books are good” (or even “most books are good”, if you are more of a positive person than I am). From this we can conclude that books themselves are neither good nor bad. They can be both. It depends on the context, the reader, the intent – and of course it depends on the book itself.
This sounds obvious. Yet, if we were to apply the same line of reasoning to kids and screens, things immediately get more messy. I’m sure you’ve heard phrases like “No screen time before 2”. “No screen time in the weekdays”. “One hour of screen time a day”.
But just like we can’t talk about books without knowing more about the specific book – how can we talk about screen time without knowing what is taking place on the screen?
The answer is that we can’t, and we shouldn’t. But what we can do is understand why some people do worry about screen time, and empathize with their concerns. There is a lot of conflicting information available on this topic. You read about a study on Facebook, a parent at the playground guilt trips you about letting your kids use an iPad, or you read somewhere that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use technology. I’m a parent of two daughters myself. I get it.
A lot of concern is that screens, and for slightly older kids social media, is making kids feel bad or not develop appropriately. Parents are concerned it could be harmful in some way. I found the latest work from Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, both from Oxford University, to have a good take on this.
The reason why I like their work, is that they have almost ten years of data and over 10,000 British preteens and teens in their study. This is significant, and in this space – very rare. It goes far beyond the anecdotal, which is precisely what we need. Let me read a shortened quote from an article they wrote in The Guardian, summarizing their latest work from May of 2019. Their question, simply put, was if social media makes you happy or sad.
“What did we find? Well, mostly nothing! In more than half of the thousands of statistical models we tested, we found nothing more than random statistical noise.
Our results indicated that 99.6% of the variability in adolescent girls’ satisfaction with life had nothing to do with how much they used social media.
It is undoubtedly tough being an adolescent. But this was true long before there were any screens.
On the flip side, there are some things that seem legitimately concerning. Myopia – being nearsighted – has almost doubled from 1971 and 2008 which in turn can increase risks of vision related diseases. To me it doesn’t seem unreasonable that screens may have contributed to this, but a causal link is yet to be established. We know that nearsightedness has increased, but we do not know why. Not yet.
In fact, that is where most of the studies on this topic are right now. They are inconclusive. They are often done with a very limited data set. We simply don’t have that much data to imply one way or another. That’s not to say that it is completely safe, but that certainly does not mean that it is harmful.
Most parents are not scientists. Therefore evaluating scientific reports is hard. There are also more pressing priorities for parents than to crack open the latest version of the “Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study” on a Friday night. It is easier to listen to an alarmist TV psychologist that – very conveniently – is trying to sell you a book on the topic of screen time.
Siding on caution is not a bad principle in life per se. It is, however, rather blunt and impractical. From a strict harm reduction perspective, it would be best to make kids wear helmets and protective gear at all times. But it is not practical. And it is not preferable, at least not from the kids perspective. Imagine all the things that the kids now could not do! Screens are not dissimilar. By withholding screens from your kids you may be reducing a hypothetical risk, but you are also withholding them from opportunity and potential.
Who should we listen to?
When making this call, who should we listen to? Well, there are some railings to hold on to. The AAP – American Academy of Pediatrics – updated their previously misunderstood screen time guidelines in 2016. In their new recommendations, they specifically call out “high-quality programming/apps” which moves the conversation from looking at the screen itself, towards looking at the activity which is taking place.
Further, they address the context of screen usage and say the following:
“Co-view or co-play with your children, and find other activities to do together that are healthy for the body and mind (e.g., reading, teaching, talking, and playing together)”.
How your kids – and you – are watching, playing, and learning matters too. This is not strictly a numbers game. So say I, and so say the American Academy of Pediatrics too.
Before I conclude, allow me to speculate a little about what the outcomes of screen usage could be. In order to do that, it’s useful to think about what has been said about other media in the past. What did they overlook?
“Withdraw all encouragement relating to the reading of books. Reduce the number available. Act so as to make reading inconvenient except for the set time”.
Now this is easy to laugh about now, but let’s try to empathize with the writer instead. Their concern is the amount of reading, not the reading itself. It is becoming too much, and taking over other activities. Seen in that light, this is a more reasonable approach. It isn’t healthy to only read novels all day. Just as it isn’t healthy to only play football, or to only play Roblox. There is a lesson to be learned here.
Further – where has reading taken us? Especially with the access of the internet, it is the gateway to a world of experiences, literature, perspectives, and knowledge. Most of the world’s written history is available with a few clicks of a button. In all languages, for all people, globally. It only requires a device that costs less than €50. Or in some cases, a free library card.
And while I’m not oblivious to the complexities of conspiracy theorists, disinformation campaigns, and things of that nature – I think it is still fair to say that discouraging reading in 1938 may not have been a great piece of advice. They didn’t know what reading could do for them and their kids – not there and then, and not in the future either. Today this is self-evident.
Where will this thing people call “screen time” take our kids in the future?
With this in mind, where will this thing people call “screen time” take our kids in the future? In some sense we are already there, but just like the reading skeptics in 1938, it is not clear enough for everyone yet.
Fortnite looks like a game where people shoot each other and do weird dances to celebrate it. But Fortnite is also an online social club where leadership and teamwork develop. It’s deep and multi-layered. When was the last time you collaborated with a global group of people, in real-time, towards a common goal?
Minecraft is similar. It looks like a game with strange block-like graphics and people walking around with axes. Or you could say that Minecraft is a creative tool that opened the doors to architecture and construction for millions. Spatial thinking, creative expression, community.
For me, I think the future of screen time is togetherness. I see a world where global collaboration is seamless and enriching. People working together, building on each others knowledge, and learning from each others cultures. The initial building blocks are already in place. Why would we want to hold our children back from these types of experiences?
So, where do we begin? We need to start on the ground floor, with the simplest of questions. Addressing the immediate needs of guilt-ridden families trying to work out what is best for their kids. With this in mind, here are my four suggestions for how to think about kids and technology:
1. What matters is what is on the screen, not the screen itself.
Help your kids find the right thing for them. There’s so much great stuff out there. Don’t assume that your kids have necessarily found it themselves. And if they have found something – help them to use it the right way. What matters is what is on the screen, not the screen itself.
2. Consider the context
How are your kids playing? Are they doing it together with others – siblings, friends, online friends? Is the screen the main part of the activity, or actually a facilitator of something else? If you think Fortnite is about shooting each other, you haven’t been paying attention.
Is there an opportunity for you to participate in the activity? You can probably add layers to any activity that is going on, creating both a learning opportunity as well as a shared space between you and your kids. Consider the context.
3. Encourage variety
I think there’s much to be gained from Fortnite, but I wouldn’t suggest playing and streaming it for 8 hours straight everyday. But come to think of it – there are very few activities I would recommend for 8 hours straight everyday. Go beyond the screen and ensure that your kids have varied activities in all places – including with screens. Encourage variety.
4. Treat the screen like you would anything else
When I was the CEO of Toca Boca and tried to explain my job to people, almost everyone said “ah, you mean educational apps”. It was precluded that if you make apps for children, their primary purpose must be education. There’s no other area in kids lives that you would hold to that standard.
What if all food you served your kids had to have a specific nutritional formula? That’s interesting in theory, but anyone saying that has never been in a car with a hungry toddler. Different circumstances call for different solutions.
Childhood is more than just education. But if you want apps to be educational, you can find plenty that are really great. You can also find ones that encourage kids to become artists or musicians! Or sometimes – just things that let them chill out and relax a little. The screen is just like life in general – don’t treat it any differently.
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