Seeing screen time differently

Jon Sutton reports from a one-day event on research, policy and communication in a digital era.

Now that I have a teenage son, I regularly find myself saying things like ‘You’re not even playing Fifa, you’re watching videos of people playing Fifa!’, or (my new favourite) ‘when you’re older you’ll wish you’d used this time to learn how to play guitar’. Opening this event at the Wellcome Collection in London, Dr Pete Etchells, a Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University, promised to ‘start changing the conversation a little bit’. Would the assembled scientists, parents and journalists give me a fresh perspective on screen time?

With a ‘30,000 foot view of the area to ease you into the topic’, Professor Andy Przybylski (University of Oxford) began by pointing out the lack of theoretical or philosophical grounding in the area. We don’t talk about ‘book time’, ‘food time’, yet the idea has grown that there is ‘an analogue way’ that is wholesome, genuine, and draws out our true selves. ‘Everything was fine until a second way of being, the digital way, was invented.’ This is core to the ‘displacement hypothesis’ that every moment in front of a screen displaces an analogue moment (which would inevitably have led to you being a rock star of the future).

Yet the evidence simply doesn’t back this up. It’s nearly all correlational work, and even the best evidence (from large-scale social data) shows only very small effects on sleep (duration, onset), health (activity, general), functioning (social), and behaviour (aggression). Why are we talking about something that accounts for 1 per cent of variability? Why is it the topic of countless scaremongering headlines, of pop science books (Greenfield, Zimbardo, Atler, Twenge), of recommendations (the American Academy of Pediatrics 2x2 rule – no screen time under two, two hours over two), and even laws (South Korea’s ‘Cinderella Law’)?

It comes back to this idea that there’s something intrinsic about screens that sets them apart from other fields of human endeavour. But there’s nothing new under the sun: similar concerns were raised in the past around the printing press. There’s another perspective: techno-utopianism. Could screen use help us make friends online, feel connected, and receive social support in tough times? Przybylski partnered with NHS Digital on the What About YOUth Study, adding four items to a questionnaire for 120,000 English 15-year-olds. He found some support for the ‘Goldilocks Hypothesis’ – that increasing doses of screen time are positively associated with wellbeing up to a point, and then are associated with lower levels of well-being. That point is around an hour, but the subsequent effects are quite small anyway: ‘it’s about a third the size of missing breakfast or not getting enough sleep, even with excessive amounts of screen time such as 5-8 hours.’

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson (University of Edinburgh) was also leaning towards techno-utopianism, or at least away from ‘some heyday on the Tube in London with everyone singing Knees up Mother Brown in the aisles’. She works with children with ADHD, ASD, Developmental Language Disorder, and finds important positives of screen time with these sometimes marginalised groups – cognitive and perceptual stimulation, supplementary modes of communication, connections with peer communities, participation, self-confidence. ‘We need to translate beyond the specific thing being explored, to say something broader about transactions in a digitally enabled space,’ she urged. Technology can be used as a motivator, or facilitator, for social interaction. In her research she has used ‘discrepant’ game versions, with added/subtracted/changed elements used to encourage communication.

It’s difficult to change established narratives to consider these more positive views of screen time. Alice Kay, a Press Officer at Science Media Centre – and organisation that works with journalists and scientists to improve the accuracy of news coverage of science – pointed out that screen time is often linked to things people love to hate… sedentary behaviour, tech companies. As scientists, make yourself available, she urged: ‘there is safety in numbers’, and ‘we’ll get the media to “do” science better when scientists “do” the media better.’ Tom Chivers, until recently Buzzfeed science correspondent, agreed. Journalists and scientists need to better understand each others’ timescales, he admitted (‘It’s like mayflies trying to understand continental drift’). Public understanding of science is also key: ‘most people don’t realise science is an ongoing process… the subconscious model is that the scientist goes into the science mine with a data chisel, and comes out with a nugget.’ This makes research areas such as screen time – with its correlational studies and tiny effects – problematic.

Chivers was hopeful though, that the state of science will improve, and that the media will move on. One of Douglas Adams’ brilliant laws will come into play: anything that is in the world when you’re born is just a natural part of the way the world works, anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary, and anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things. The media will soon be run by people who grew up with iPhones.

In fact the debate has already moved on somewhat, with video game violence becoming less of an obsession. ‘We’ve wasted a lot of good scientists and research time trying to answer this one question,’ said Pete Etchells, ‘when it’s just one part of video game use.’ And it’s another aspect that’s plagued by confounding effects: family environment, personality, what your friends do. Etchells and his colleagues recently looked longitudinally at game play and a clinical measure of aggression (conduct disorder), and did find an association between playing violent video games at age 8, and aggressive behaviour at 15. ‘But it’s a weak absolute risk’, and other factors such as competitiveness in games may be as important as the ‘violence’ aspect. What even is a ‘violent’ game anyway? Minecraft was banned in Turkey. ‘We can do better than this I think,’ Etchells concluded. ‘It’s a big mess, basically’.

The man to sort out a mess is Chris Chambers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Cardiff University. A tireless advocate of Reproducible Open Science, he considered what makes a research field controversial. Political bias and partisan framing, high media traction and high potential public impact through policy all play a part. So we need believable research findings to inform the debate: methodologically sound, presented impartially, reported openly and transparently, reproducible / questionable quality relative to impact. Screen time ‘strikes out pretty big on this,’ Chambers said: ‘it’s a bit of a wasteland.’ We see small samples, publication bias, retrofitting of hypotheses, analytic cherry picking… ‘it’s spraying bullets at a wall and drawing the target around where bullets happen to land’. The solution? The ‘Open science evidence pyramid’. Too often in this area (and others), psychologists are ‘languishing down here in hell’ at the base of the pyramid with ‘status quo research that is barely worth a mention’; above is ‘exploratory open science’, which is fine for generating questions but should not directly inform policy; confirmatory open science (relevant to policy makers but beware of publication bias); registered reports (with methods and planned analyses shared in advance, and publication regardless of results); and, right at the top, meta-analysis of registered reports. It’s not the way many psychologists work, and Chambers has inevitably met with resistance and a frustratingly slow pace of change. But, he told me later, ‘I’m right, and they know I’m right. They come round in the end’.

So is the area of screen time simply a ‘perfect storm’ of methodological, media and policy confusion? Psychology in microcosm, even? In discussion, Professor Dorothy Bishop (University of Oxford) suggested the problem is wider. A lot of epidemiological research is like this: around food and alcohol for example. People, she said, are naturally vigilant for the ‘tiger in the undergrowth’, and they tend to discount negative findings. ‘Even a lot of people who have jobs as researchers are not particularly good at considering their own cognitive processes.’ We ‘lean heavily on the crutch of the precautionary principle’ when considering how much risk is acceptable, particularly for our children.

What do parents want from us as psychologists? Tamsin Greenough Graham represented the Parenting Science Gang, 2000 parents united by a desire to have scientific evidence to drive parenting. She said that a common fear amongst parents is the judgement of other parents and healthcare professionals, many of whom ask: ‘how long does your child spend in front of screens each day?’ In determining whether it’s a problem, Greenough Graham said ‘We don’t know those answers. The information has not been made available to us, at least in a way we can use it.’ But she also reported that parents want to know the benefits of screen time, and what screen time life skills we need to teach our children. ‘If our children were off playing with LEGO during that time, none of us would feel guilty. We value LEGO. What is there to value about screen time? Tell us.’

There was still time to flick across several other channels in the discussion. Press releases – read your own, include what the study doesn’t show, avoid hype). Schools have a role to play – there is a suggestion they are financially rewarded for finding ‘problems’ with their pupils, and Pete Etchells pointed to the important Wellcome project to train trainee teachers to critically analyse neuroscience. There’s the question of how we model ‘responsible’ screen use as adults and parents. And the thorny issue of the financial models of the tech companies, and the behavioural science they conduct themselves (internal, unseen, closely guarded).

The day made me see screens differently in two ways. Firstly, there seems no doubt that we need to make open research and replicated designs more commonplace in all areas, particularly controversial ones. But given that parents and policymakers don’t want to know what evidence they can’t use, they want to know what they can use, we need to become more comfortable with saying ‘We don’t know. But here’s why we don’t know’. Secondly, screen time is no longer black and white. As Fletcher-Watson pointed out, there is a harm associated with taking screens away. They are important for connection, and they offer opportunities for learning, particularly with vulnerable populations. As she concluded: ‘We’re putting screen time into a bucket on its own. Instead, we should be taking what we know from other areas of psychology. Przybylski concurred: ‘A discussion of screen time that is divorced from a discussion of family life in general is pointless.’

With Fletcher-Watson’s encouragement to ‘join children in the online worlds they inhabit’ uppermost in my mind, I arrived home. ‘I’ve been to an event on screen time,’ I told my eldest. ‘I’m going to try to better understand what you’re doing and why.’ ‘Oh great,’ he replied, barely looking up.

- Dr Jon Sutton is Managing Editor of The Psychologist. This meeting was funded via a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award, awarded to Pete Etchells, with the support of Dorothy Bishop. 

Further reading

Chris Chambers' slides

The 5rights report on digital childhood

Tom Chivers on screen time and health 

The British Psychological Society is today launching a briefing paper on Children, adolescents and screen use, at a joint evening event hosted by the BPS and Mental Health Foundation at the Houses of Parliament. Dr Lisa Cameron MP, Mental Health Spokesperson for the SNP and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Psychology, will host and chair the event.

In addition to calls for studies to identify causality and for the use of more qualitative methods, recommendations for families or carers include:

  • Minimise screen use before bedtime
  • Encourage children to engage in a variety of activities away from screens
  • Parents/carers should discuss the different aspects of digital media with their children and encourage positive media use
  • Spend time online together to help young children get the most from educational content

Find out more and download the paper.

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January 2018

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