Letting your child spend hours on a phone may not be bad after all

Gone are the days of “TV will make your eyes go square”.

Letting your child spend hours on a phone may not be bad after all

With black rectangular screens in nearly every pocket, the new living room battle lines are drawn around not only TV, but smartphones, laptops, tablets and the handful of other displays that proliferate our homes.

With that influx comes myriad concerns about how digital media is molding the minds of children, along with ripples of recommendations about how much screen time our kids should, and shouldn’t, be exposed to. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, put out a recommendation last year that children between the age of two and five should only encounter around one hour of screen time per day.

Now, a new study from Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University suggests guidelines such as these may be too strict.

Pulling on data from 20,000 interviews with parents of children aged between two and five, the researchers investigated the correlation between limited tech use and a number of factors including caregiver attachment, impact on emotional resilience, curiosity and positive moods.

Their results, published in the latest edition of journal Child Development, suggest we may currently be too restrictive on our kids. “Evidence did not support implementing limits as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics,” the teams writes. What’s more, further research into adolescents indicated that “moderate screen use above the recommended limits might actually be linked to slightly higher levels of children’s wellbeing”.

“Taken together, our findings suggest there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing,” said lead author on the study, Dr Andrew Pryzbylski.

“If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time.”

Pryzbylski notes that further research should focus on how the use of digital devices with parents or caregivers – and turning it into a social time for the family – can affect children’s psychological wellbeing, curiosity, and the bonds with the caregiver.

In a nutshell, the study suggests a moderate amount of time on screens may not be bad for a child, and the current guidelines by the AAP are out of date. It’s important to note, however, this doesn’t mean parents should give kids free reign over smartphones and tablets. There are many things a screen can be used for, and not all of them will be as psychologically beneficial as Pryzbylski’s suggestion of family social time.

A 2015 study from University College London and the Anna Freud Centre, for example, found that the emotional problems of girls aged 11-13 in England increased 55% between 2009 and 2014. Similarly, a survey by global children’s charity Plan International UK found that almost half of 11- to 18-year-old girls admitted that social media makes them feel like they have to look or act in a certain way.

“We know that social media permeates all the spheres of young people’s lives – it is integrated into their education, their friendship networks and leisure activities,” Tanya Barron, chief executive of Plan International UK, told Alphr.

“It is clear that girls have a strong appetite to be online; they are telling us that social media is both a source of pleasure and anxiety but, ultimately, a necessity. However, girls are reporting that they are withdrawing from online spaces, holding back their opinions or worrying about things they’d like to post for fear of backlash. With almost half (45 per cent) surveyed admitting that social media makes them feel like they have to look or act a certain way.

“This is a concerning trend because the future is digital and so we must assert girls’ and young women’s right to be a part of it. We must neither ignore the pressures girls are feeling, nor respond to those pressures by encouraging them to hold back or come offline. Girls have a right to be online and to enjoy the benefits that come with that.”

Ultimately, reasons for and against screen usage are nebulous, and further research is needed. “Given that we cannot put the digital genie back in the bottle it is incumbent on researchers to conduct rigorous, up-to-date research that identifies mechanisms by and the extent to which screen-time exposure might affect children,” says Dr Netta Weinstein, co-author of the study and senior lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University.

The study comes at a time when the debate around children and technology has ratcheted up a few gears, with France recently announcing a total ban on smartphones in schools from September. Facebook has also weighed in on the issue of digital platforms and mental wellbeing, admitting that browsing other user’s posts on the social network “may make you feel worse”, but advocating active interaction as a way to increase social support.

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