The growing problem of multi-screening in kids

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

As if it hasn't been challenging enough to limit screen time this year in a world of homeschooling and bored children, a new challenge for parents has emerged: multi-screening.

Multi-screening is the practice of using more than one screen at a time. It might be watching TV while scrolling on your phone (something most of us have been guilty of at some point), or playing games on a computer while engaging in social media on a phone or tablet. There are many combinations of screens that are now possible, thanks largely to our homes having so many of them.

Is multi-screening really so bad? Well, there isn't a lot of data available yet on how much damage it can do to children, but a peer-reviewed Stanford University study on young adults found multi-screening can have a detrimental effect on our memory.

The researchers looked at a group of people aged 18 to 26, and found they were more likely to have lapses in attention span and score badly in a memory test if they also reported frequently using more than one device, such as their laptap, phone, television, at the same time. 

Brisbane mum of two Susie* says she is baffled by her 11-year-old son's multi-screening. 

"Sometimes he'll be playing a game on his computer, while talking to his friends on his iPad," she says. "That's not so bad, and I can understand why they do that. But the other day I found him watching The Simpsons on TV, while also having a totally different episode of the same show running on his iPad.

"I mean, how does he even take in any of the story? It seems crazy to me – every time I see him doing it, I tell him to stop, but I can't be everywhere at once, and he uses his iPad for school work so I can't take it away."

Melbourne mum of two teenagers Rebecca* says she's tired of her kids not being present because they are always on their phones.

"If I suggest we sit down and watch a movie together, both the girls enthusiastically agree, and then they sit there scrolling through their phones, with one eye on the TV and one eye on Instagram," she says.

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"Heaven forbid they should miss something on TikTok while spending an hour and a half with their mum."

Rebecca says she's tried banning phones during movie time but then her daughters both say they're bored and wander off. 

"I hate it," she says. "I don't know what to do."

Psychologist Brad Marshall works with children addicted to the internet and is known as The Unplugged Psychologist. He says the problem of multi-screening has been growing recently.

"This has become increasingly problematic as screens have become more available and cheaper in the last five or so years," he says. 

"It's very common for children and teens to be watching TV or streaming shows with parents and be using their mobile/tablet to chat, social media, or watch Youtube. 

"It's also increasingly common that children and teens believe they can multi-task and have their school work open on a laptop and have another device running a social media chat or their favourite YouTube or Tiktok."

(Something the Stanford University study would suggest is going to cause big problems come exam time.)

Marshall says it's hard to know exactly what effects this multi-screening is having on children. 

"Largely because like so many aspects of my field the technology moves so much faster than the research," he says. "What we can say is that multi-tasking in general is not as 'effective' as children and teens think."

Marshall says parents should be not only trying to limit multi-screening, but limiting screens more generally.

"Parents should try to limit screens overall so as to not impact on their child's development," he says. "But if they are using one device it's a good idea for parents to limit it to just that one device at any given time. The most effective way to do this is through limiting the WIFI to certain devices. Without WIFI connection a device is fairly useless."

Marshall also warns against a common parenting mistake he sees regularly. 

"Parents often get frustrated by confiscating one device," he says. " For example, taking away their phone because 'it's the distraction'. 

"Children and teens will just jump devices and it doesn't really have the desired effect of 'balance' we are looking for. Parents need to look at this more holistically."