'There are wolves in the forest…'

Ahead of his appearance for us at this summer’s event, Professor Andrew Przybylski (Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute) picks three myths around screen time – and how science, and some common sense, can help.

Seldom a week goes by without a new study claiming screen time is influencing us in some way. Given a relentless drumbeat of headlines one could be forgiven for concluding digital screens are the cause of all of humanity’s problems. But what does the actual science say? And what are the most prevalent myths about this form of digital technology?

Myth 1: Screen time is a thing

At best, screen time an umbrella term, but not a particularly useful one. It’s a fuzzy term encompassing rich worlds of social interaction, argument, content consumption, and production. Finishing your online shop is miles away from swiping through Tinder but they, and thousands of other uses, fall under this heading. An hour of your son or daughter playing guitar hero on Xbox counts the same as practicing the guitar by following lessons on YouTube.

Still, this shorthand does grab your attention. You can remember instances of screen time that bothered you, perhaps an inattentive spouse or focused child. But this isn’t a good representation of what’s going on when you’re using tech. Using one term is an over-simplification for this kind of digital life. It’s as if you wanted to understand your nutrition in terms of food time.

Myth 2: Screen time is easily measured

Contrary to common belief, you can’t just ask people to tell you how much time they spend on devices. First, people have no idea what screen time is really (see Myth 1), and second, people are pretty lousy at estimating the amount of time they spend doing just about anything. How many notifications did you get today? How many times have you picked up your phone? How many times did you glance at Twitter or send a text? If you know the answers you’re either fooling yourself, me, or should really get a job in our lab.

The fact of the matter is that numerous studies have been done on this and people consistently miss estimate (over and under) what they with devices. Recent studies we’ve done indicate that how and when you ask about screens has a huge impact on the amount of time people say they use device; much larger effects than screens could possibly have on people. Speaking of which…

Myth 3 Screen time causes problems

The headlines are as relentless as the questions I get from my in-laws. No, there is no evidence that screen time causes problems. This is to say, there is no scientific evidence that screen time as it’s currently measured (see Myth 2) influences (i.e. has a cause-effect relationship) with behavioural or psychological problems.

This myth is pervasive for a few reasons. First, most longitudinal work on this topic is particularly poorly done. It’s a bit of a ‘spray n’ pray’ situation. Researchers test a large number of statistical models and only a very small set of these come out with results. This kind of cherry-picking creates scary headlines, but it isn’t good science. Second, in these studies the cherry-picked effects are tiny. We’re talking one quarter of one per cent of a kid’s psychological or behavioural problems. If the data analysis were done well (they’re not) this would be a problem for scientists and policymakers; not individual parents.

 

None of this is to say that digital technology and the digital world don’t impact us. It’s just that we’re asking the wrong questions and barking up the wrong tree when we pay attention to screen time. It’s a poor stand-in for a rich digital world that has a lot of ups and downs. There is a cottage industry of fear merchants. They sell us on ideas like screen time changes the brain, destroys generations, or is more addictive than narcotics. One might commend their entrepreneurial spirit but lending them credence runs us the very real risk of distraction. There are wolves in the forest, but if we listen to their screen time claims, we risk missing the real challenges and opportunities of the digital age.

- Professor Przybylski will lead ‘The Psychologist Presents… Screentime debunked’ at Latitude Festival, which takes place in Henham Park, Suffolk, from 18-21 July. See www.latitudefestival.com.

See also a new paper published today - 'Social media's enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction', from Amy OrbenTobias Dienlin, and Andrew Przybylski.

Find more on screen time in our archive, and our 2018 chat with Professor Przybylski on video games.

Find transcripts and reports from our previous appearances

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber