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Screen time

10 October 2015

I’m old. Ok, I might not be a Methuselah yet, but I’m quite old and certainly old enough to have grown up without any access to computers, tablets, smartphones or even the huge ever-growing pulsating internet. Screen-wise, those olden days were pretty bare. We had the telly and… well, that was more or less it, unless you counted the LCD display on someone’s digital Casio watch.

The alluring glow of the screen.

The alluring glow of the screen.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we’re surrounded by screens. So much so, that concerns have been raised whether all these screens are all that good for us. Especially if you’re a parent, in which case you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of ‘screen time’.


As a parent, you’re responsible for your child’s health, and are therefore most helpfully inundated with (not seldom contradicting) information as to what is good and bad for your offspring. You’re no doubt well-informed on everything from dietary needs and forms of exercise to mental stimulation and creative outlets suitable for kids. Additionally, you’re most likely also well aware of less ideal forms of spending time, like watching telly or being online.

The eat-well-plate - that's a lot of food on one plate!

The eat-well-plate – that’s a lot of food on one plate!

The latter two are the ones responsible for the birth of the phrase ‘screen time’, where we allocate a certain amount of time the kids get to spend in front of a screen per day. This will help to prevent any negative consequences of being exposed to computer and television screens.

Scientists say…

But hold on a minute. Negative consequences? What negative consequences? Are screens actually dangerous to our health?

Well… Yes and no. Old CRT screens (ah, that brings me back…) did contain electron guns – three of them in fact, one for each primary colour in the RGB spectrum – that fired electrons at a high velocity at a grille that was situated in the screen surface itself. Hence, a small amount of ionising radiation could possibly leak from the screen and hit whoever sat in front of it.

Taking an x-ray.

Taking an x-ray.

In practice, the amount of radiation (mainly in the form of x-rays) turned out to be rather modest and was generally considered to be harmless to humans. And with the advent of flat screen technology, emitted radiation was limited to visible light and therefore no more damaging than a dim table lamp.

There are however other, less direct consequences of screen usage that are more related to lifestyle choices (something I addressed in my post Fat and fit? a while back). Sitting still often and for extended periods of time will eventually affect your health and could potentially lead to anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer and death.

Better safe than sorry

This has led to some parents carefully monitoring the amount of time their children spend in front of screens, often limiting it to 1-2 hours per day. And scary pictures going viral on social media of toddlers staring emptily at TV screens as if hypnotised help to enforce the need for this control.

“Good girl. But remember: wait until they’re asleep.”

Seeing kids being completely absorbed by smartphones and tablets is equally unnerving; most likely because we recognise our own compulsive behaviour and want to avoid to help creating similar habits for our children.

The result is the old-fashioned and still-going-strong response of “What are you doing sitting here inside all day? Go and play outside in the fresh air! Do something fun, or go and create something instead of just sitting there like a zombie!”

The hidden danger?

It’s a time-honoured response, and I’m sure I’ll use that phrase or similar on my kids just like my parents did on me. But there’s a twist here, lurking in the shadows. If it’s not the screens themselves that are dangerous, but rather the lack of physical activity, we have another potentially damaging sedentary behaviour we need to stem before it ruins our children irreparably: reading.

Look at these cold dead eyes. Don't tell me this is supposed to be good for you!

Look at these cold dead eyes. Don’t tell me this is supposed to be good for you!

I’m of course being facetious; reading isn’t bad for you as such. But my point is none the less a serious one – we don’t object to people reading a book as much as we object people playing video games or watching YouTube videos. And the only reason for this I can think of (apart from the good old technophobic one) is that it creates a sense of exclusion. The person fully absorbed in the non-real world of media is essentially shunning you in favour of it. It’s more fun being there alone than here in the real world with you.

And actually, it wasn’t long ago that reading was treated with an equal amount of contempt and disdain as screen use is today. It just wasn’t seen as natural, disappearing into a make-belief world like that. The difference between books and computers/phones/tablets is mainly one of degrees: it’s easier to quickly become absorbed in multimedia and it’s harder to be distracted. But in essence it’s the same phenomenon: escapism.

At least in the good old days, people were sociable.

At least in the good old days, people were sociable.

Before you start flaming me, let me assure you that I am aware of the differences between actively and passively consuming media. There’s a level of imagination required to make up a world from just written words that’s not called on when watching television. We can zone out watching the latest series, but need to stay focused to make sense of a book.

But – and this is a big but – screen time isn’t just about vegging out watching telly or passively consuming YouTube videos. It’s also about creating, imagining, exploring, inventing and generally challenge one’s limitations and shortcomings. Be it in the form of figuring out how to get past a particularly tricky obstacle in a video game, or getting that new blog theme to behave as you want it, or writing a composed reply to that hateful post that upset you so much, screen time can be filled with challenging tasks and scenarios.

No, I don't know either. But doesn't it look sciency?

No, I don’t know either. But doesn’t it look sciency?

Now, I haven’t seen any fMRI studies of the potential differences between reading a book and using a screen, but I suspect that the results of such a study would be inconclusive. There’s just such a wealth of different experiences in either scenario that it would be nigh on impossible to separate them statistically.

The point

My point, then – at last – is that we should focus less on the evils of screen time and more on the evils of sedentary behaviour. Using computers, smartphones or tablets isn’t automatically bad in itself, but if you spend your entire awake-time in front of a screen it will have detrimental effects on your health. As always, it’s about moderation: enjoy that video game, read your Facebook feed, watch that latest episode of Dr Who (if you must). Use your screen, let the kids use the screens, but let’s not use the screens all the time.

You might even let them read a book or two…

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 October 2015 03:27

    You’re completely right – I got a lot of “go outside and play!” when I was a kid and reading. I’d compromise and bring the book outside with me. That was…apparently not what they meant. Huh.
    It’s all a balance, I think – you don’t want kids that don’t move at all, but you also don’t want technophobe kids. And it’s hypocritical to tell kids not to use technology, as much as we use it ourselves. I love how much it’s advanced kids’ learning, personally – if I wanted to learn about something, I had to wait for school and then look it up in an encyclopedia. They can look it up immediately. That will never cease to amaze me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 11 October 2015 07:41

      Being physically active is of course very important for our health. But reading, creating, learning, inventing and solving problems is also very important for our minds. And considering that, I don’t really care if my kids read books on a screen or printed on paper, as long as they read. Why should the medium matter? Or that they play games or even watch videos, telly and films. It’s all about experiencing different worlds, different people’s lives. I believe that that plays no trivial part in developing a sense of empathy and being able to identify with others.

      (And yes, the overwhelming amount of information and knowledge available for the kids today is truly staggering. Of course not everything is actual knowledge or even true, but then they also get the chance to practice their sense for source control.)


  2. 11 October 2015 09:31

    As ever, a great post.

    My boy is just over two now and screens have been an item of fascination since birth. Even (and possibly because) as a technical computer type person, I’m keen to limit “screen time”. When I was young we would be thrown out of the house and told not to come back ’til tea. We made our own entertainment. Of course, dare we do that with busier roads and the ever-present bogeyman that papers scare us with and society attempts to molleycoddle us from? But the bogeyman is on the internet, and from what I hear is a 12 year old girl seeking new friends …

    A point you’re missing is attention span. Modern technology is FAST. Loading a computer game was a commitment. Once you had endured the loading and squealing of the game starting, you would make damn sure you made the most of it before you switched. Gratification is instant. TV perpetuates that with fast cuts and constant recaps after rapid-fire commercials. Take Dangermouse as an example. The new Dangermouse is silly fast with rapid cuts and even bolder colours. Don’t get me wrong, I like it and I think it has remained true to Cosgrove Hall’s original, but the difference in production is marked from the 1980’s version.


    • 11 October 2015 09:54

      Why thank you, Sir! Too kind, I’m sure.

      There are indeed dangers everywhere – although perhaps not as many as media would have us to believe. A little common sense goes a long way though, and shouldn’t be a hinder for our kids to be playing outside or spending time online.

      Short attention span, yes. Although I prefer to call it an agile attention span. Your observation with the Dangermouse series perfectly highlights the evolution of information density. Another example would be any 1970s television series, like The Little House on the Prairie or something. Boy, those cuts where long! Each scene lingers on for what feels like minutes, just to allow the viewers to correctly absorb the current mood of the people portrayed. Nowadays we’re much more capable of quickly picking up clues and are ready for the next scene within seconds, or fractions thereof. Although this could be seen as a damaging development resulting in fickle behavioural patterns, I rather see it as an evolution of our mental capabilities. We’re simply exercising our minds to become more agile and responsive, and the media of today are reflecting that change.

      Just imagine what our minds will be like in another 30-50 years…


  3. 11 November 2015 07:50

    And see: Randall Munroe a.k.a. xkcd agrees with me. We need to chill out about this already. Isolation


  4. 12 November 2015 08:11

    If I were a parent (which, thank the Lord I’m not), my concern about a child’s online activity would be:

    (1) what malware downloads and other scams he might be falling for
    (2) what utter garbage he might be wasting time with

    #2 of course applies to reading just as much. There’s a difference between reading textbooks and reading Harlequin romances. Also a difference between informative online discussion vs “Look at what my lunch is today!”. The same could be said about the nonsense that adolescents spent long hours on the phone for decades ago.

    #1 is an added dimension of danger we haven’t yet learned to address. Make sure he’s learned to recognize a scam before he has access to any credit card. That’s for sure, and make sure his device has strong malware protection.


    • 12 November 2015 11:55

      I think it’s mainly a question of common sense – don’t click on dodgy links, don’t believe something that sounds too good to be true and never download unknown apps.

      The other issue, with wasting time on nonsense: I think we need to allow ourselves and our kids to sometimes waste a little time now and again. Surely that wouldn’t be the end of the world. And if we encourage more constructive and creative interests, those sessions of wasting time would be rare and far between, since they will be eager to pursue their own projects instead.


      • 12 November 2015 16:58

        The problem is that a child has little or no experience to tell him what’s “dodgy”, or what’s a waste of time. One must taste a bad wine to know what a good one is. Shepherding a kid through that process is what you signed up for as a parent.


        • 13 November 2015 06:59

          Of course. But that’s just like anything else in bringing up a child.

          And regarding the wasting time: let them waste time now and again. I don’t see a problem with that, as long as they’ve got active interest in stuff also.


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