In April 2019, eight months before the emergence of the new virus that would upend our lives, the World Health Organisation declared children under five should spend no more than one hour a day looking at screen-based technology.
Nearly two years and one pandemic later, screens have become an integral part our lives. We have spent this crisis working, learning, relaxing and socialising via our laptops and smartphones, and our children are spending more time on their devices than ever before. According to one US study from April 2020, half of American children were spending six hours or more online, up 500 per cent on pre-pandemic levels.
Should we be concerned? It’s true that, ever since Socrates warned reliance on writing would erase memory and limit social discourse, every generation has worried about the impact of new technology on their children. But it is also true that the sheer speed of the switch to screens is unlike any previous technological shift. Today’s children spend their days on devices that did not exist 15 years ago. Can we be sure that’s healthy?
Parents looking for answers might have tried to embrace this year’s mantra of “follow the science”. But that is harder than it sounds.
At one end of the scale, the picture looks terrifying. The WHO guidance followed a report by Canadian researchers that “excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally”, linking tech use in under-fives with delayed development. While the findings were contested, other studies have found links between screen time and childhood obesity, sleep issues and lower psychological well-being. And that’s before we even look at the mounting evidence of social media’s impact on teen mental health.
Conversely, a 2019 study by scientists at Oxford, Cambridge and Cardiff found that “children spending between one to two hours a day engaged in television-based or digital device activities are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of ‘psychosocial’ functioning than non-users”. Two of its authors debunked previous scaremongering research by noting the correlation demonstrating technology’s negative impact on adolescent well-being was comparable to that showing the impact of potatoes.
The studies might be inconclusive, but for Jenny Afia, a partner at the law firm Schillings who sits on the Children’s Commissioner’s Growing Up Digital Task Force, one thing is clear: “This technology is deliberately made to be addictive – and we need to take this seriously as a society.”
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One of the challenges of studying this area is how broad the parameters are: much of the research conflates all kinds of screen-based behaviour, from Zooming a friend, to posting on TikTok, to watching television. But the potential pitfalls of reading a digital book rather than a paper copy are clearly different from playing Fortnite. It’s also difficult to isolate the technology from wider societal phenomena: children who don’t get enough exercise may spend more time on screens, but that doesn’t make screens the main issue. Similarly, it is hard to separate common adolescent insecurities that have always existed from the social media platforms on which these anxieties are now played out.
But Afia sees two major problems with children’s deepening immersion in the online world. The first is the control tech companies are exerting over ever-younger users, tracking their moves and building digital profiles of them before they are old enough to understand what they are giving away.
“All these technologies are using our data in some way,” she warns. “Whether you’re reading the paper online or binge-watching Netflix, the technology is learning from what you do, and someone somewhere is making a lot of money.”
Bernadka Dubicka, the chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, is equally concerned about the “lack of ability to control a digital footprint which stays with a child for life”. She warns that popular sites and apps are designed specifically in a way that compromises safety and privacy, such as lacking age verification and having the lowest possible privacy settings as a default.
Afia has campaigned for tighter regulation to protect children in the UK, and has achieved some success. The Age Appropriate Design Code, which she consulted on, was drawn up by the Information Commissioner’s Office and rolled out in September 2020. According to Afia, it means “children’s privacy will soon be protected online as a default, literally. It should stop children being targeted by adverts or content based on other things they have looked at”.
But she is also worried that the addictive element of screen-based technologies – particularly social media, which she describes as “the world’s brightest minds using behavioural psychology to design digital ‘attention traps’” – impacts children’s ability to function in the real world.
“Algorithms encourage precisely the kind of behaviour we try to steer our kids away from,” she warns, referring to the pressure to over-share and to compete online.
“When we eventually go back to school, I suspect children will find it harder to navigate social challenges and tensions. At school, as tough as it can be, children need to work through issues in the playground. Now, they can just shut their laptops.”
This narrative, that there is something intrinsically dangerous about online interaction, is one that the educator and father-of-two Jordan Shapiro has spent the last decade combating. His book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World argues that, instead of being feared, the younger generation’s native relationship with technology should be embraced – and that trying to fight this attachment might damage children much more than their screens ever could.
“Can you imagine if everything you loved, your parents just spent the whole time saying ‘That’s evil, it’s addictive, the companies are just trying to steal your information, don’t do it, don’t trust it’?” he asks. “That’s the message we’re giving our kids right now.”
Shapiro doesn’t just think children’s relationship with technology is inevitable – he believes it is actively beneficial, teaching them the very social skills Afia worries it is taking from them.
“Even before the pandemic, some enormous percentage of our adult lives was mediated through digital technology,” he points out, including in business communication and personal relationships. “And that requires different kinds of social skills to talking in person. Writing an email is very different to hanging out in a bar.
“I firmly believe that what we really want for our kids is to give them the opportunities to use these online spaces so they can practise these skills.”
Parents might not think hours messing about with video games or TikTok count towards valuable learning, but Shapiro is adamant: children learn best through play, so why should it matter if that play is taking place through a screen?
“There’s different rules in a digital space, so when they’re playing what to us looks like a stupid game of Fortnite, what they’re also doing is working out methods of communicating and conflict resolution and code-switching, all these things that you need, and how these things happen in a digital space.”
That was before the pandemic. As Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions have limited our social spheres, technology that keeps us connected has become not a luxury, but a necessity. Andrew Przybylski, a director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute and the lead author of both the 2019 study and the analysis comparing digital use to potatoes, believes that rather than denigrating the companies that power our online lives, we should be thanking them.
“It's a pretty safe assumption that screen-based technologies have been a social lifeline for young people during the pandemic,” he says. “I think that without screens we’d be seeing [more] massive negative impacts on the health and well-being of children due to the closing of schools, limits on leisure and family meet-ups, and playdates more broadly.
“Just like all the biomedical research we have invested in over the years that has sped up vaccine development, we really lucked out when it comes to remote education and socialisation.”
Speaking of remote education, it is worth noting England’s most recent lockdown moved learning online for thousands of under-fives – the same cohort the WHO warned should have no more than an hour’s screen time a day. It’s an unsettling thought, especially given the intuitive way small children take to devices, mesmerised by images on screens and instinctively swiping away.
Yet Shapiro doesn’t see the problem. In fact, he believes that if we want kids to have a healthier relationship with technology, we should introduce them to it earlier, when they are most receptive to parental boundaries and willing to be guided.
[see also: TikTok and self-loathing: why you probably don’t want to be a teenage girl in 2021]
“It seems to me we want to be teaching social skills and good habits around technology at a much younger age. And actually, lockdown is an opportunity to do that, because we’re with them, we can see them.”
What everyone agrees on is that simply setting a child loose in the online world with no limits or supervision is a terrible idea – Shapiro likens it to taking a toddler to a playground for the first time and leaving them to play alone.
But advice on what to do instead differs. Dubicka believes adults must set strict boundaries, as well as demonstrate the behaviour they wish their children to learn.
“It’s no use expecting your child to put down their screens at bedtime or at mealtimes if you don’t do the same,” she points out.
But Shapiro diverges. He has spent years telling parents concerned about their children’s video-gaming not to slap the console out of their hands, but to sit down and play with them.
“Just ask them to explain what they’re doing, go ‘What is that game? Why are you doing that?’ They’re developing identity narratives through this online play, and by you saying ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about it, I want to understand it’, you’re saying ‘I support your identity narrative… I recognise the value in it, I recognise you’.”
Przybylski agrees that demonising technology as some kind of evil external force is an unhelpful way to approach something so integral to our daily lives.
“Take [or make] the time to catch up on the technologies your kids are using,” he advises parents. “Demystify it. Treat it like any other of the one million challenges we face as parents. We’ll all be better off if we stop pretending the digital and analogue worlds are different things.”
That sentiment might not do much to alleviate all the concerns about children spending hours glued to screens: the impact on their sleep, their fitness, their digital footprint. But parents who feel guilty about letting the tablet babysit while they try to juggle work with childcare could benefit from zooming out. It makes little sense to question whether screentime is in itself good or bad without considering what kids would be doing instead. In lockdown, the answer is not a healthy football game or a wholesome playdate with a friend. Instead, children deprived of tech would be virtually unable to socialise, and would probably badger their stressed-out parents even more, eroding patience and reducing the likelihood of quality family time later on.
This pandemic has been hugely disruptive, especially for young people: schools have closed, they can’t see their friends, and social interaction has been radically curtailed. If technology offers children a way to continue their social lives and buys parents some breathing space, maybe that balances out the risk of disrupted sleep and of companies harvesting data.
Maybe what matters most is not whether technology is bad for children, but whether it’s good for parents: if the adults feel rested, engaged and in control, the kids will probably be alright.