We watched TV. Our kids go online. What's the big deal?

It’s an argument you hear a lot these days.

When we were kids, we watched way too much TV and gabbed on our landlines too much. And we turned out all right.

Our own kids prefer their smartphones and tablets. Big deal. They’ll be fine.

The woods are full of prophets of doom, when it comes to assessing the impact of new media. That much is undeniably true.

There was a time when the “leading experts” thought comic books would destroy the minds of a generation. And no less a heavyweight than Socrates himself warned that literacy itself - yes, reading and writing - would corrupt the youth of Athens.

So the moral panic around “screen-time” … isn’t it exactly the same?

It’s a comforting thought. But is it true? Let’s take it one step at a time.



Moral panic - or evidence-based concern? 

Brain science has a come a very long since the 1954 hearings of a US Senate Subcommittee investigating the link between comic books and “juvenile delinquency.” The panic was just that … a fear-based response, with no hard evidence to support it.

Scientific evidence of the impact of screen-time on children’s health and wellbeing is, by contrast, well documented - and growing at a rate of knots. 

Consider the findings just a few weeks ago from a National Institutes of Health survey. It found brain changes in kids using screens more than seven hours a day, and lower cognitive skills among those using screens more than two hours a day.

(We blogged about it here.)

Exactly how long-lasting those changes will be - and to what extent they’ll make a difference in children’s lives - well, those very important questions remain unanswered. But make no mistake. This is science - not hysteria.

Screens and sleep

The impact of screens on children’s sleep is another area where the weight of data is staggering. Partly kids are getting less sleep simply because they’re secretly (or not-so-secretly!) on their screens at nighttime.

But we now know there’s a physiological reason too - the blue light from screens that tricks our brain into thinking it’s daytime, and suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin.


Of course, television screens emit blue light too. Yet just-published research has established that four hours of mobile device use is associated with the twice the risk of sleep deprivation compared to no time on screens. The connection between TV time and sleep was weak or non-existent, depending on the age group in question.

The reason, researchers believe, is that TV is not as psychologically stimulating - basically it’s a passive activity, as opposed to texting with friends and interacting on social media. Then there’s the portability factor. Mobile devices are easily smuggled under the covers. A flat-screen not so much.

Why mobile is revolutionary

But the “mobile” part of our kids’ mobile devices has an even greater impact. It is this, more than anything, that has made it possible for children (and adults of course) to be connected 24/7 - and to rack up truly mindblowing amounts of screen-time. In fact - to make the distinction between online and offline pretty meaningless.

Experts estimate that during school holiday periods, screen-time can easily ratchet up to eight hours a day plus. Yet since researchers started tracking television usage in the 60s, teens have never spent more than 2.5 hours watching TV.

As of 2016, the average teen was online six hours a day. (And keep in mind that three years is practically a lifetime in our digital age!) Experts estimate that during school holiday periods, screen-time can easily ratchet up to eight hours a day plus. Yet since researchers started tracking television usage in the 60s, teens have never spent more than 2.5 hours watching TV.

No one ever carried a TV around in their pocket to school, on the bus, to a friend’s house. But that’s exactly what we do with our mobile devices. They are always with us, always pinging away, always singing their siren song.

Then consider that our devices, and the apps we use on them, have been specifically designed to hook us. As former Silicon Valley executive Tristan Harris said of smartphone apps, “Your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers … updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.”

Yes, you and I turned out all right - hopefully with enough common sense to recognise that parenting in a digital age presents us with both unprecedented challenges and unprecedented opportunities.

Family Zone is here to help you maximise the good stuff - and minimise the worry. Our sophisticated, simple-to-use parental controls let you manage screen-time in seconds, across every device your child uses, everywhere. Learn more at familyzone.com, and start your free trial today!

Featured image credit: Royal Television Society

Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, Cyber Safety, parenting, sleep, well-being, brain

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