"We are fed a steady diet from the press that screens are bad for kids – if you show people enough of those terrible articles based on terrible research, a proportion of people will have a terrible idea about screens," says Andrew Przybylski, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Oxford and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Speaking on this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, Przybylski explains that much of the negative press for screen time is way ahead of the evidence.
“All the stuff about attention spans reducing is probably nonsense,” he explains. “There probably aren’t any problems with screen time for teens – whether it is YouTube videos or chatting with friend etc, 1-3 hours per day probably is not bad in terms of wellbeing. You really have to be using screens a lot on any given day to have a negative risk.”
Tech and screen time
It matters greatly what is being done on the screens, too, he stresses.
“There is a dualistic notion of analogue time and digital time. It is as if any moment you spend in the digital world must displace a more natural, a purer, analogue experience. That is at the heart of how we tend to think of screen time,” he says.
“We need to be sensitive to the differences between the games. Nuance is needed because there are games out there that are set up to take advantage of people, but if we are going to cry wolf over everything that is on a screen, then we are not going to be able to see the scary stuff when it actually gets sold to our kids.”
Schools, he says, need to be sensitive to this and also separate how they deal with technology in schools from how they believe it should be used in the home environment.
“There is a really good case to make that unless the technology has a specific place in the pedagogy, that it is a distraction and it should not be in a classroom,” he says. “You don’t need a large-scale social science study to tell you that as a teacher or a headteacher – you do that in line with your pedagogical values. But you should not confuse that with a prescriptive sense that follows young people out of the classroom.
“I think if schools are trying to influence how much screen time is happening in the home, that is a pretty serious overreach because there really isn’t good scientific evidence that [such a move] would protect young people or advance their health in any way.”
Indeed, such an approach could actually cause more problems than it solves, he suggests.
“If you ask young people about how they use their social ties online, two-thirds of them say that when stressful or horrible things happen to them, they reach out for social support. We are really at risk when we have hard and fast rules – and when these things are wrapped up in what it means to be a ‘good’ parent – you can really have pretty negative downstream consequences for children’s social lives.”
Przybylski’s aim is not to dismiss concerns about tech – far from it – but rather to ensure that any conclusions we come to are rational and based on evidence.
Take sleep, for example: many reports have suggested that screen time before bed causes sleep issues. Dig a little deeper into that research, though, and you find the effect is not as significant as you may have imagined.
“I am a parent of two under-fives,” he explains. “If I put one in front of two episodes of Octonauts before they go to sleep, what impact will that have on my child’s sleep? That 20 minutes of screen time is only going to cost her about 140 seconds of sleep. So, as a parent, accurate reporting of that information, in real-world terms, would mean I can decide on those trade-offs.”
Ahead of the evidence
Likewise, claims that online games and social media are trying to hook kids in for 24/7 access do not stack up, he suggests; social media, for example, may well be addictive, but no one actually knows yet.
“If you are an online game maker, you actually do not want to make a game that uses all the tricks in the book to be making people play that game 24/7,” he says. “For an online game, what you want really is a business model of the most profitable gym in the world – one 1 cubic metre room with no kit or overheads, a gym every person in the world is signed up to but no one ever goes to. Because if everyone is playing all the time, that is very expensive in terms of servers, but also in terms of creating new content.
“And Facebook or Google? It is true they want to show you ads, and it is based on an attention economy, and when they were growing there was some bad behaviour, but the model is not to burn these users out on short-term ad revenue; it is lazy to view it as a casino. A lot of people would like you to think that, on the marketing side, they want people to think you have people glued to their screens, but that is not necessarily the reality. The truth is we don’t know. These companies do not let us look at their data. So if anyone tells you they know these platforms are addictive, they are probably just making it up.”
In the podcast, he talks about the problems around tech research, about how this research gets misinterpreted, and explains in detail how our "reactive" take on tech is a damaging approach to the digital world. He also says that stories about tech executives sending their own children to tech-free schools, so therefore they must be hiding some horrible secret about the tech they produce, are ridiculous.
"This is a very strange argument," he says. "And it is so uncritically repeated."
To listen to the podcast in full, search for "Tes the education podcast" on your podcast platform, or click the player below or this link