The answer is yes. Exposure to screen time for youth is good, has the potential to be bad, and regardless of your point of view, it is just the way it is. Our smartphone devices aren’t going anywhere, and children are never going to cease to be tantalized by them, so it would be helpful to understand the current research in light of over a decade of alarmism.
There have been many contradictory articles and research regarding whether or not exposure to devices with screens is good for childhood development or if it could potentially cause negative effects. With the proliferation of handheld devices-such as tablets and smartphones- preliminary studies and alarmist reporting almost universally seem to sound the calls warning of the dangers of technology on teenager’s, let alone elementary-aged children’s, minds. Everything from violence, to increased ADHD, even gambling problems make the technology conspiracy list.
As generations of children are now growing up in the digital age, we can actually track the differences in generations right before smartphones were prevalent, and right after. We can compare past to current generations and, as you may not be surprised to hear, the alarmists were far more wrong than right, and all-in-all, the consensus seems to be shifting more towards, in general, the kids are alright when it comes to incorporating screen time in their daily lives, despite the naysayers. Of course studies will show how consuming Netflix for six hours every day is going to be detrimental to a child’s development, however, this is no different than the child vegging out in front of the television.
Parental advice columnist and researchers are now taking a much more nuanced view of smartphone and tablet usage, recognizing that all device usage (even the family television), is essentially all screen time. The way we consume entertainment has changed as our very devices have changed our daily routine around the globe. An iPhone 6+ is larger than many black and white TV’s of just three decades ago. Even the Huffington Post has dedicated an entire section of their website to parental advice called “Screen Sense”
Slate has done a series of articles on the topics of toddler, child, and teenage screen usage debunking some of the alarmism. Farhad Manjoo’s reporting on “why doctors’ prohibition on screen time doesn’t make any sense” is a great example of this. If your child is young enough that you can set up their screen time for them, “be choosy about the content,” says another Slate Columnist Lisa Guerney, and seek “interactive apps.”
Teaching children how to self-regulate when it comes to their electronic devices is a much more effective long-term solution than demonizing devices that are only going to become more prevalent, not less. Remind your children not to use their screens at night when they’re trying to fall asleep. It is tempting to entertain oneself with just one more YouTube video or just one more Reddit thread, but staring at a bright screen can wreak havoc on the parts of your brain that signal when you need to power down for the night, and your REM cycle can basically be shot to hell.
However, good screen sense, as we said before, is much more complicated than merely eschewing video-content binging in favor of interactivity. The type of interactivity also matters. While studies show that reading has unambiguously positive results (something one can do on any smart device), certain types of extremely interactive games--ones that involve both quick reaction timing and strategic planning such as FPSs, RPGs, and RTSs (First Person Shooters, Role Playing Games, and Real-Time Strategy Games for the non-gamers out there) show a significant improvement in cognitive function compared to more passive gameplay.
Explaining why this is in your child’s best interest will do a great deal more than forbidding screens at night (depending on the age). If your child will only play Candy Crush and other mind-melting, addicting games, shell out the $25 for a Google Play or iOS App Store gift card to encourage them to get a game that actually involves some interaction. Instead of tracking apps and panic, simply remember to teach them good smartphone etiquette.