LSE - Small Logo
LSE - Small Logo

Sonia Livingstone

February 28th, 2018

Why the very idea of ‘screen time’ is muddled and misguided

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Sonia Livingstone

February 28th, 2018

Why the very idea of ‘screen time’ is muddled and misguided

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

When it comes to screen time, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions don’t work when they are taken too literally; they don’t allow for the diverse conditions of real people’s lives. In this post Sonia Livingstone and Natalia Kucirkova explore the problematic concept of screen time and measuring technology usage in terms of quantity rather than quality. Sonia is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. Natalia is a Senior Research Fellow at the University College London. She researches innovative ways of supporting children’s reading engagement with digital books and the role of personalisation in early years. [Header image credit: D. Bridges, CC BY 2.0]

The idea of ‘screen time’ causes arguments – but not just between children and their anxious parents. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, recently compared overuse of social media to junk food and urged parents to regulate screen time using her Digital 5 A Day campaign.

This prompted the former director of Britain’s electronic surveillance agency, GCHQ, to respond by telling parents to increase screen time for children so they can gain skills to “save the country”, since the UK is “desperately” short of engineers and computer scientists.

Meanwhile, parents are left in the middle, trying to make sense of it all.

But the term ‘screen time’ is problematic to begin with. A screen can refer to an iPad used to Skype their grandparents, a Kindle for reading poetry, a television for playing video games, or a desktop computer for their homework. Most screens are now multifunctional, so unless we specify the content, context and connections involved in particular screen time activities, any discussion will be muddled.

Measuring technology usage in terms of quantity rather than quality is also difficult. Children spend time on multiple devices in multiple places, sometimes in short bursts, sometimes constantly connectedCalculating the incalculable puts unnecessary pressure on parents, who end up looking at the clock rather than their children.

The Digital 5 A Day campaign has five key messages, covering areas like privacy, physical activity and creativity. Its focus on constructive activities and attitudes towards technology is a good start. Likewise, a key recommendation of the LSE Media Policy Project report was for more positive messaging about children’s technology use.

After all, an overwhelming focus on risk and harm creates fear, underplays possible benefits of technology, and limits parents’ role to policing and protecting rather than mentoring and enabling.

Technology use is complex and takes time to understand. Content matters. Context matters. Connections matter. Children’s age and capacity matters. Reducing this intricate mix to a simple digital five-a-day runs the risk of losing all the nutrients. Just like the NHS’s Five Fruit and Veg A Day Campaign, future studies will no doubt announce that five ought to be doubled to ten.

Another problem will come from attempts to interpret the digital five-a-day as a quality indicator. Commercial producers often use government campaigns to drive sales and interest in their products. If a so-called ‘educational’ app claims that it ‘supports creative and active engagement’, parents might buy it – but there will be little guarantee that it will offer a great experience. It is an unregulated and confusing market – although help is currently given by organisations providing evidence-based recommendations such as the NSPCC, National Literacy Trust, Connect Safely, Parent Zone, and the BBC’s CBeebies.

The constant flow of panicky media headlines don’t help parents or improve the level of public discussion. The trouble is that there’s too little delving into the whys and wherefores behind each story, nor much independent examination of the evidence that might (or might not) support the claims being publicised. Luckily, some bodies, such as the Science Media Centre, do try to act as responsible intermediaries.

When it comes to young people and technology, it’s vital to widen the lens – away from a close focus on time spent, to the reality of people’s lives. Today’s children grow up in increasingly stressed, tired and rushed modern families. Technology commentators often revert to food metaphors to call for a balanced diet or even an occasional digital detox, and that’s fine to a degree.

But they can be taken too far, especially when the underlying harms are contested by science. ‘One-size-fits-all’ solutions don’t work when they are taken too literally, or when they become yet another reason to blame parents (or children), or because they don’t allow for the diverse conditions of real people’s lives.

If there is a food metaphor that works for technology, it’s that we should all try some humble pie when it comes to telling others how to live. ‘Screen time’ is an outdated and misguided shorthand for all the different ways of interacting, creating and learning through screen-based technologies. It’s time to drop it.

Notes


This text was originally published on The Conversation and has been re-posted with permission.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people. Her most recent book is The class: living and learning in the digital age (2016, with Julian Sefton-Green). Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.' Sonia Livingstone is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society for the Arts and fellow and past President of the International Communication Association (ICA). She has been visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen, Copenhagen, Harvard, Illinois, Milan, Oslo, Paris II, Pennsylvania, and Stockholm, and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She is on the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, is a member of the Internet Watch Foundation’s Ethics Committee, is an Expert Advisor to the Council of Europe, and was recently Special Advisor to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications, among other roles. Sonia has received many awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the University of Montreal, Université Panthéon Assas, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the University of the Basque Country, and the University of Copenhagen. She is currently leading the project Global Kids Online (with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and EU Kids Online), researching children’s understanding of digital privacy (funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office) and writing a book with Alicia Blum-Ross called ‘Parenting for a Digital Future (Oxford University Press), among other research, impact and writing projects. Sonia is chairing LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission in 2017-2018, and participates in the European Commission-funded research networks, DigiLitEY and MakEY. She runs a blog called www.parenting.digital and contributes to the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog. Follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S

Posted In: In the news