Screen time is just 'hanging out'

Children do all kinds of positive things with digital media, often in ways that support and are supported by "real life" activities - similar to adults.
Children do all kinds of positive things with digital media, often in ways that support and are supported by "real life" activities - similar to adults.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

In today's media-rich world (or media-saturated, depending on your view), one rarely has to look far to find parents concerned about the ways children engage with technology. Managing "screen time" seems to be on everyone's mind, particularly during these summer months when children find themselves with more time on their hands.

As someone who has spent most of my career studying children and safety online, I get a lot of questions from parents about screen time. My response? There is a lot more to digital-media consumption than expert advice about hourly limits.

WHERE SCREEN TIME COMES FROM

The idea of "screen time" initially gained traction in 1999, when the American Academy of Paediatrics suggested that parents avoid smartphone, tablet, computer and TV use for children under two and limit such use to no more than two hours for children over two, adding hours as they mature.

While the American Academy of Paediatrics relaxed these guidelines somewhat last year (expanding their policies to include positive digital-media use and suggesting family media plans), the core idea of screen time remains largely unchanged. Despite the allure of easy-to-follow rules that address parental concerns, screen-time recommendations have drawn increasing criticism from a wide range of experts.

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The science supporting screen- time recommendations has major limitations. More often than not, screen-time studies demonstrate connections between problems with well-being and media use. They do not demonstrate that one causes the other.

For example, while research suggests that there is a connection between screen time and childhood obesity, that could just mean that children who are less active are more likely to be obese and spend more time in front of screens. The research does not suggest that screen time causes obesity.

With each generation, children have been increasingly restricted from going outside on their own... We should not be surprised when they turn to social-media apps to hang out and socialise - and get upset when we stop them.

SCREEN TIME TODAY

As our media practices have changed, and adults themselves have begun to spend more of their time online, the idea of screen time has not quite kept up with the times.

The world is increasingly saturated with all kinds of positive, interactive media experiences - for children and adults alike. Ideas about limiting screen time assume all screen experiences are equally negative for children and that they are replacing positive offline activities.

Yet, we know that children do all kinds of positive things with digital media, often in ways that support and are supported by "real life" activities - in ways similar to adults. They go online to hang out with friends, catch up on events and seek out entertainment and information, just like anyone else.

In my own work, I have argued that some of the problems that parents have with children and technology are not about technology at all. With each generation, children have been increasingly restricted from going outside on their own. With fewer private spaces to be a child, we should not be surprised when they turn to social-media apps to hang out and socialise - and get upset when we stop them.

What looks like a "waste of time" or an "addiction" is often just everyday hanging out.

SO WHAT SHOULD PARENTS DO?

How, then, can parents get a handle on their children's media use? As always, it is complicated - and no expert advice should trump the real, everyday experiences that parents have with their own children. That said, there are some general guidelines that can help.

First, parents should get away from ideas about time and focus more on the content, context and connections provided by different kinds of engagement with media. There is a world of difference between spending a few hours playing games with close friends online and spending a few hours interacting with hate groups in an online forum.

Second, parents should ask real questions concerning the well-being of their children, independent of their media use. Are your children healthy, socially engaged, doing well in school and generally happy?

If so, there is probably no need to enforce hard restrictions on technology. If not, it is best not to rush to conclusions about the evils of technology. Have a conversation with children about what they are doing and what they think the rules should be. Unilaterally cutting them off without understanding their problems can often make things worse.

Finally, parents should remember that there is no substitute for a meaningful, supportive relationship between parents and children.

With a stable, trusting relationship, even negative experiences online can become positive learning experiences.

•The writer is assistant professor of cyber-security education, University of South Florida.

•This article first appeared in theconversation.com, a website of analyses from researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Screen time is just 'hanging out''. Print Edition | Subscribe