Now that life is digital, what does 'screen-time' even mean?

In a world where life itself is digital, an expert argues that our ideas about “screen-time” are in serious need of an upgrade.

It’s easy to blame the pandemic for soaring rates of screen-time in just about every demographic, from the stroller set on up. And make no mistake:  COVID lockdowns and restrictions have definitely accelerated the trend.

But the inexorable evolution to an always-on digital lifestyle was well underway decades before the world had ever heard of the city of Wuhan. And all indications are that it will continue to do so once we put this pandemic behind us. 

Always on, always online

Like it or not, online is where we will increasingly be living our lives - our kids especially.  But whether any of this is cause for alarm or moral panic? Well, that’s another question entirely.

In fact, more and more experts are cautioning that the very idea of “screen-time” - and our fears too much of it will harm our kids - may be a holdover from a vanished era.

Could it be that the familiar parental worry - “how much is too much?” - is simply the wrong question?

It’s not that there’s nothing for parents to be concerned about, they argue - or that the necessity for boundaries and restrictions are old-fashioned or irrelevant. 

Rather, they insist that screens are now so central to the way we live our lives that no definitive,  quantitative formula can guarantee safety or ensure wellbeing.

The familiar parental worry - “how much is too much?” - is simply the wrong question, they say.

So what has changed?

Then - and now

Once upon a time, screens were “just about entertainment,” explains digital parenting expert Dr. Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London University of Economics. But today, they’re “about learning, about work, about staying in touch with people and with information.”

Because of this, she argues, “the idea of imposing time limits becomes impossible. Life is digital.”

Maybe “impossible” is putting it a bit too strongly. But “complicated” the challenge has certainly become.

Pluses and minuses

And that’s because we know that our online lives both giveth and taketh away.

On the upside, recent studies have found kids who spend more time with devices have larger friendship groups, and some researchers have concluded there is “little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing.” 

Other research has linked excessive screen-time to anxiety, depression and body-image issues. And then there are a range of additional risks from pornography and hate speech to bullying to addictive use. 

“Parents are right to be worried,” says Livingstone, author of Parenting for a Digital Future. “It’s just that keeping [children’s screen-time] to, say, two hours a day won’t solve the problem.”

So if not screen-time, then what?

Far more important when it comes to keeping kids safe and well online are the quality of content kids engage with, the context of their engagement, and who they are connecting to online. 

Building digital literacy by spending time with kids online should be a key strategy, Livingstone advises.

In addition to mentoring their digital children, parents need to model responsible and mindful use.

“These services are designed to be compulsive,” she points out. “If parents are [using screens] all the time and saying ‘oh God, I feel guilty but I can’t stop,’ that’s what children learn.”

Use Family Zone's acclaimed parental controls to manage the quality, as well as the quantity, of  your child's online life.

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, online safety

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