Technology in education is evolving and it is going to have a significant impact in the near future. The pandemic led schools and parents to leverage online education, which in return increased the screen time. And now, even with the return to the traditional classrooms, technology continues to remain an integral part of the learning process, including longer hours in front of a screen!
However, this has been a point of anxiety for a lot of parents, as kids are now exposed to longer hours of screen time, both at home and at school. These concerns are understandable, but they are not entirely true. There have been numerous studies on the impacts of screen usage, and by delving further into them, we can draw some conclusions. The question of whether screen time is beneficial or harmful is actually the wrong one to ask because the term ‘screen time’ is quite broad and does not indicate how an individual uses his or her screen. The type of content ingested will determine whether it is beneficial or harmful to the individual.
These are the 4 Myths about screen time, through research on the effects of screen time based on the content and context of screen use, that can help us understand the real impact of screen time among children.
Myth #1 All screen time is the same
There are many different types of screen time – passive screen time (like just watching Netflix), games, social media, educational screen time that are all put into one giant bucket of ‘screen time’.
Why does this matter? These differ dramatically from each other in their quality and the way they engage students, yet very few articles, social media posts or whatsapp forward treat them separately.
Myth #2 All types of screen time (educational vs passive vs gaming vs social media) have an equally bad effect and must be dramatically reduced
The one type of screen time that has the least research available with regards to negative effects is educational screen time. This is screen time for the purpose of learning, including algorithm-based, individualized learning programmes, educational games, instructor-led online courses like MOOCs.
So while the prior body of ‘screen time’ studies seem to suggest that there might be many negative effects, including adverse physiological, psychological, and educational well-being outcomes (academic performance, weight gain, sleep, mental health), it is very important to note that almost all of these are conducted around screen time categories like gaming, passive viewing and social media. There is very little evidence available with regards to educational screen time.
Why does this matter? It matters because when you say ALL screen time is bad and you completely disregard all the massive positive gains from educational technology it promotes popular misconceptions that often lead parents and policy makers to put extreme limits on screen usage in schools.
Myth #3 Screen time is the cause of harmful physiological effects
Even for passive, gaming and social screen time, it is important to remember that ‘association’ is not the same as being responsible for causing it. One major reason for this association is also because screen time can displace important activities like physical movement, social play and sleep – which in turn may have negative effects.
Why does this matter? Because it means that negative effects can be reduced by ensuring that healthy activities persist even when screens are used.
Myth #4 The evidence from screen-time research leaves no room for doubt
There are many limitations to the research on screen time – many different types being clubbed into one category, small effect sizes in the research, small number of studies on educational screen time. Further a lot of the screen-time effects are measured using self-reported surveys. These are important limitations that we need to remember.
Why does this matter? Because popular and social media packages them into sensational headlines or bite-size pieces of information that lose all this important information about the limitations. This often promotes misconceptions and sometimes widespread misinformation.
I will end with a very pertinent quote from a Screen Time Literature Review: For parents and educators, we suggest that, “it is time to move beyond a heavy focus on risk with little exploration or recognition of opportunities”, and instead leverage the strengths and benefits of ST in a purposeful way while mitigating any associated risks during these exceptional times.