Thrive in our connected world

Oxford Internet Institute: Three screentime myths

Here’s a quick summary of the top points made at this year’s Michaelmas London lecture from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford. The full video is also posted at the bottom of the page.

The lecture was delivered by Professor Andrew Przybylski (pronounced Shuh-bill-skee), OII Director of Research known for his vehement critiques of current (bad) research into the alleged nefarious effects of screentime and social media.

Three screentime myths

  1. Myth One – Screentime is a ‘thing’. Screentime is not a single thing it is many different things. We live in a multi-screen world (smartwatch screens, smartphone screens, computer screens, tv screens, movie screens, signage screens, device screens, embedded screens…) and we do multiple things on these screens. Bundling all screens into aggregate ‘time’ spent is a meaningless “lazy umbrella”. Moreover, screentime implies a “digital dualism” where we contrast a natural organic world of genuine conversations, authentic relationships, and true in-the-moment experiences with the digital world of artificial experiences that somehow degrade human experience. This is a myth, digital screentime exists within, and is part of, our natural world.
  2. Myth Two – Screentime is measured well. Screentime is not measured well. Screentime is so varied, it’s difficult to measure it properly. Self-reports (how many hours do you spend with different screens) are notoriously inaccurate. Screentime questionnaires are no more useful than food-questionnaires. We need observational data – and measure not just the presence of screens, but what we do with them.
  3. Myth Three – Screentime causes problems. There is little evidence that screentime causes problems. Beyond problems with data collection and self-reports of screentime, many of the studies on the ‘effects’ of screentime are based on correlational data – which by definition cannot identify causes – and that often do not discount intervening or confounding variables (Ice cream sales are correlated with murder, but one does not cause the other – both are linked to hotter weather). When other variables are accounted for it turns out that 99.75% of how happy a young person is has nothing to do with how much time they say they spend online. Causal research does exist, but this is often laboratory-based and with very small samples, leading to problems of statistical (in)sensitivity and external validity.

Three Consequences of Screentime Myths

  1. Dumb Advice. Buying into screentime myths leads to dumb advice, such as the two-by-two rule from American Academy of Pediatrics (now retired, but still “zombie advice” that is circulating and peddled around the web). There was no evidence to support the two-by-two rule for no screen time for kids under 2 no more than two hours of screen time for kids over two. Other dumb advice that is not based on evidence includes only giving your children dumb phones (as opposed to smartphones) so they can call in an emergency, or taking the equivalent of an abstinence pledge – pledging to not give your child a smartphone until they are adults.
  2. Anxiety Profit-Taking. Buying into screentime myths opens us up to unscrupulous digital addiction, digital detox and digital wellbeing consultuants, gurus and coaches looking to exploit anxiety and worry. In the US digital minimalist consultants show up to your house to help you declutter your digital life, for a fee. In other countries, screen addiction bootcamps exist. Rather than solve a problem for which there is little evidence, these profiteers not only create anxiety, worry and unnecessary unhappiness, they spread low-grade pseudo-science and promote moral panics
  3. Ineffective Regulation. Buying into screentime myths can lead to ineffective regulation that can have unintended consequences. Myths about the impact of screentime on social harmony and productivity have led to time-limits being placed on video gaming (using facial recognition) in China. In South Korea, worries about sleep effects of screentime led to a “Cinderella law” that if you’re under 16 you can’t use the internet between midnight and 6 a.m (the effects of night-time screentime are estimated to cost children one minute and 32 seconds nightly sleep). ThIn the US, worries about screentime effects of violence have led to sterile, mostly evidence-free controversy over regulating games. In the UK, where adult content remains an issue, worries about onscreen adult content led to the proposal (now dropped) for age-verification technology to “protect” young people such content

Three Actions for Dealing with Screentime Myths

The lecture concludes with three recommendations for parents and caregivers looking to manage screentime of their children.

  1. Be involved and curious. We should stop treating screens like they’re a black box and all one thing, and start treating them as ubiquitous and integrated into our lives. Just as Sigmund Freud said that dreams are the royal road into the unconscious, today screens, games and social media are the royal road into the internal lives and the behavioural lives of young people today. To understand people and screen, we need to be involved with screens, not demonise them. So, understand and try the apps that children use yourself.
  2. Be autonomy-supportive. Don’t just say no. Instead, provide a meaningful rationale for any screentime rules you impose. Communicate perspective-taking – that you understand the world (and your rules) through the eyes of your young person. And avoid authoritarian language (you must, you have to) and use supportive language instead.
  3. Make informed trade-offs. Avoid an absolutist reactive mindset. Screentime is not all good, or all bad. Screentime offers potential benefits and potential risks to both children and parents. Take a balanced approach, and be ready to make trade-offs when benefits outweigh risks. If putting one child to bed means letting another use a screen, and the potential impact is twelve and a half minutes reduced sleep, it might be worth it. However, to understand these trade-offs we need good science – and for researchers and journalists to communicate in less hyperbolic and absolutist terms.

The lecture signs off with a call to abandon the idea of screentime altogether. Screentime is a muddled term that has become an unhelpful folk devil and is precipitating a moral panic that is diverting attention from genuine issues affecting human wellness and wellbeing. Rather than let history repeat itself and demonise technology – from jousting, pocketbooks, tv, video games, and now digital screens – we need evidence-based critical thinking.

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Douglas Adams quoted by Prof. Andrew Przybylsk

Screen time – myths, misconceptions and making sense of it all
Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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