The one constant in the swirl of parenting advice is that children should have limited screen time.
My girls have had iPads since they were three. TV shows like In the Night Garden were part of their wind-down ritual before bed. They spend hours absorbed in Minecraft and Crossy Road. My older daughter spends her school holidays at "code camp" to learn even more about screens. And they veg out at the movies and TV.
Given all that, the experts would surely say that I’m a terrible dad.
The eminent neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield fears screens are changing the very structures of our brains, eroding our inner life and capacity for introspection. Meanwhile, David Gillespie, author of Teen Brain, claims "unfettered access to screens is driving an epidemic of addiction, depression and anxiety, the likes of which we have never witnessed before”.
The World Health Organisation recommends no sedentary screen time for children under two and no more than one hour per day for two-year-olds. They add “less is better”, pointing to links between the time children sit in front of screens and excess fat, delayed motor and cognitive development and poor emotional health.
“Sedentary screen time is one type of passive sedentary time and has an unfavourable association with, for example cognitive development,” says Dr Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity.
But it’s worth taking a closer look at the evidence.
The WHO recommendations, for example, are based on systematic reviews of data published in peer-reviewed journals on the relationship between physical activity, sedentary behaviour — specifically sedentary behaviour reported by parents as passive screen use — sleep and various health outcomes
That all seems pretty watertight — until you read the accompanying commentary the WHO provide on the quality of evidence.
Look at the text just under the recommendations for sedentary time where there is, in a smaller-sized font, the following disclaimer: “Strong recommendations, very low quality evidence.”
The WHO goes on to acknowledge that their recommendations on the links between screen time and body fat, cognitive and motor skills development and psychosocial health are based on “moderate to very low-quality evidence” and that “the overall quality of evidence was rated as very low”.
This comes as no surprise to other researchers in the field.
“We have no evidence yet that if, for example, a teenager is doing poorly, taking away their phone would help them,” says PhD candidate Amy Orben from the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology.
Ms Orben, along with Professor Andrew K Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute, looked at data involving some 17,000 children aged 9–15 living in Ireland, the US, and the UK, and found there was almost no evidence to show digital technologies adversely affect children’s wellbeing.
So what gives? Why are parents routinely advised to reduce screen time for kids?
One of the problems with research on technology and health, Ms Orben says, is it often mistakes correlation and causality.
“It’s the same kind of thing with murder rates going up when ice cream sales go up. There's no relation between the two, but murder rates are higher in the summer and ice cream sales are also higher in the summer,” says Ms Orben.
Similarly, the ubiquity of screens and increasing reports of anxiety and depression and other health problems among kids have occurred together, but no causal link has been proven.
Another problem is researchers using huge datasets. While these make the findings robust, they can also make otherwise tiny effects take on a significance that might otherwise go unnoticed in everyday life.
“We can label effects, as statistically significant, that are tiny,” says Ms Orben, adding that "statistical significance is not the same as practical significance".
Ms Orben illustrates the point with the example of wearing glasses. “If a teenager wears glasses to school, that also has a negative correlation with their wellbeing. That correlation is also really, really small. It is statistically significant — and it's actually larger than the one between digital technologies and wellbeing.”
That’s not to say there’s no adverse effect of screen time and technology, but the proven impact children’s wellbeing and development is tiny. Ms Orben says children would need to use screens up to 11 hours per day or more to experience a decrease in wellbeing. While we’ve all heard stories of kids “addicted” to video games, they are the exception, rather than the rule.
Ms Orben points out that, unlike the World Health Organisation, the UK Chief Medical Officer for the UK and England and the Royal Society for Paediatrics and Child Health have declined to issue concrete guidelines about screen time because the evidence of harm simply isn’t there.
Sydney-based registered psychologist Jocelyn Brewer says studying the impacts of screen time is difficult ("you can't give all teenagers a ‘dose’ of technology and map the outcome"), but the "less is better" message from the WHO and others is unhelpful.
“We really need to empower parents to help them work out what does their digital diet and the digital menu look like for their family, and how does that fit into bigger questions of when do you go and spend time in the outdoors or as a family, and how and when do you eat meals, and all of that other contextual wellbeing.”
Ms Brewer says these recommendations also often ignore the potential positives of screen time.
“For some kids not to be on social media is worse for their wellbeing than being a moderate user, because they don't have that social capital to participate, the way other kids do,” she says, adding that, for many kids, hanging out on social media or video games such as Fortnite is the equivalent of spending hours in the skate park or the shopping centre.
She advises parents to become active participants alongside their children in screen time and talk to other parents to negotiate ground rules about technology use.
“We want parents to feel empowered around taking control and understanding what's happening in the digital space, not shamed,” says Ms Brewer. “Participating is better than standing back saying ‘I'm not a gamer, I don't get that' or ‘just do that for one hour a day'.”
Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne academic and co-author of the young-adult series The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.