Is It Time to Rethink Most Everything We Think About ‘Screen Time’?

Is “screen time” equivalent to… crossing the road? Necessary but don’t let little ones go unsupervised. Eating a balanced diet? Prioritize things that are “good for you” but you can occasionally sneak in some treats. Smoking? OK to experiment but stop before you do permanent damage. These and other sometimes-apt comparisons have emerged during our research project, Parenting for a Digital Future, where we asked parents how they imagine the role of digital media in their children’s lives — in the present and projected into the future. Part of the Connected Learning Research Network, our study demonstrates how digital media crystallize parents’ deeply felt hopes and fears about their children. They worry that (in their words) their children will become “addicted” or “cyber-bullied” if they spend too much time online. Conversely, they worry that their children will be “left behind” or “left out” if they do not. Some parents feel lost about where to turn for advice. Some are locked in conflict with their children or indeed their partners about how to manage digital media. Others navigate these issues with less anxiety but still struggle to differentiate “good” from “bad” digital experiences or understand what their children are doing on screens.

These interviews highlight a crucial gap — between what happens on the ground in families and how they are advised and supported at a policy level. In May, together with the Media Policy Project at the LSE, we brought together leading researchers, policy-makers, educators and children’s media content and platform providers to discuss families and “screen time.” We concluded that in order to reach a new generation of more digitally literate parents, we need new forms of advice.

Drawing on case studies from Parenting for a Digital Future, along with over 150 citations from the published literature, this week we launched a policy brief that develops evidence-based recommendations for policy-makers, parents and the children’s media industries. This brief is set out to ask:

  1. How do parents manage their children’s “screen time,” and what strategies has research shown to be effective?
  1. What is the current advice for parents? Is it mainly risk or opportunity focused? Does it meet their needs? Is it consistent and evidence-based?
  1. What can we learn from current research, and how should this guide the next generation of advice?

Our findings reveal that one of the main messages to parents — to focus on restricting children’s time with media — is misleading. While technical filters and parental controls are marketed to families, research shows that these alone do not protect children from unwanted content, partly because children find workarounds and parents find them frustrating. It is true that the less time children spend using digital media, the fewer risks they encounter, but this comes at the expense of accessing opportunities and building resilience to prevent risks from becoming harms.

Research also shows that parents who use a combination of approaches — both setting limits but also engaging in dialogue with their children — have children who are more able to access the potential of, and manage the challenges presented by, digital media.

  • We recommend that instead of limiting screen time, parents should instead ask themselves and their children questions about screen context (where, when and how digital media are accessed), content (what is being watched or used), and connections (whether and how relationships are facilitated or impeded). This will provide a sounder basis for family decision-making than just watching the clock.

Next, we mapped the advice given to parents from 23 different organizations in the UK, U.S. and Europe and uncovered that advice is overwhelmingly risk-focused. This is despite the fact that parents are themselves increasingly (albeit unevenly) digitally skilled, and are heavily investing in digital media to help with studying, working and socializing, and to ease the practical burdens of daily life. We found only a small proportion of advice to parents emphasizes the opportunities that digital media present to learn, connect and create. We argue that when parents are told that their only role is to restrict and to monitor, they are not supported in enabling their children to really benefit from the digital age nor, paradoxically, are such restrictive approaches really best placed to keep children safe.

  • We recommend that providers offer parents concrete suggestions for how to draw on their own digital expertise and digital and non-digital experiences to engage with their children, not only to police them. This should include curated recommendations for high quality content and constructive online activities, differentiated by age, interest and special need.

Our analysis of current research shows that, based on children’s age, developmental abilities, gender or interests, parents are making finely calibrated decisions for their children. They already know, therefore, that one ‘size’ of advice can clearly not fit all. For example, while many higher income families worry about the dangers online, some of the lower income families in our study see digital media as helping keep kids safe by keeping them indoors, playing together and visible to parents. In fact it was often lower-income families who expressed hopes about how their children might benefit from digital media. But though they would love guidance on this, they often don’t find it. Research with families whose children have special educational needs or disabilities also shows that parents invest in digital media precisely to help their children communicate, play and learn as well as to give all the family some respite. Most guidelines do not acknowledge the realities of these and many other families.

  • We therefore recommend that advice and resources for parents acknowledge and address the diversity of families, rather than assuming equal or consistent access to digital and other resources and opportunities.

Finally, we considered the role of policy makers and the children’s media industries. One particular problem in relation to the internet is that parents feel overwhelmed not so much by ‘familiar’ or manageable risks but also by the new challenge of extreme or highly dangerous risks to children’s safety. To limit the burden on parents and on those who advise them, it is important that regulatory bodies and industry should continue to work together to ensure that the most extreme or inappropriate content is made less accessible to children.

Parents interact with family and child-focused professionals (teachers, doctors, health workers and more) throughout their children’s lives. Yet there are few resources and little training to support these professionals in providing advice to parents, and there remains a shortage of balanced, evidence-based, easy-to-find sources of advice (notwithstanding the work done by organizations like Common Sense Media in the US and Parent Zone in the UK).

  • We recommend a highly visible ‘one stop shop’ that parents and family and children-focused professionals can access for up to date, evidence-based advice and recommendations. Unlike the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which to date have focused exclusively on the relationship between screen time and physical health, guidance and support for parents needs to be a coordinated effort not only involving physical and mental health practitioners but also educators and the creative industries.
  • We also recommend that products marketed as ‘educational’ to parents need to be evaluated and that parents need to be given access to evidence about their effectiveness so that they can make informed decisions for the benefit of their children.

Our policy brief on “Families and Screen Time” also includes recommendations to parents themselves, chief among them that they should be confident that their experiences, values and expertise — digital and non-digital — are a vital resource for children. Parents can help their children by not being intimidated by new technologies, by modeling constructive and balanced digital habits themselves, and by recognizing that digital media can bring considerable benefits as well as some problems. Ultimately there is no single approach to ‘screen time,’ and parents should not feel pressure to ‘keep up’ with others since (as our research attests) there are as many approaches to digital media as there are families.

Banner image credit: David Lytle