I’m sure Dr. Victoria Dunckley means well with her recent screed entitled “Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy.” She cites research studies to back up her points, and buried in the middle of the article is the common-sense disclaimer that “restricting electronics may not solve everything.”
But what Dr. Dunckley misses is how electronics today are to teens what the telephone and TV was to a prior generation (and the radio was to a generation before). The studies she references don’t purport to show a causual effect, simply a correlation between two things. Generalizing from such correlations is a mistake too many well-meaning physicians (and even researchers) make.
Screentime is not “making” kids moody, crazy and lazy. Here’s why.
The strongest argument Dr. Dunckley makes is for limiting bedtime use of electronics. The research in this particular area is pretty good, although still correlational. If you read any backlit screen before bedtime — or have screens on or available in your bedroom — chances are that you may very well be disrupting your normal, healthy sleep patterns.
But then her argument devolves by citing studies that have contradictory findings. For instance, she claims “Screen-time desensitizes the brain’s reward system.” Yet the evidence for this statement — and others she pens as forgone conclusions — is less than clear. As Kuhn et al. (2011) pointed out in one of the studies she cites:
However, the direction of the reported differences is not unequivocal; some studies report addiction associated increases others report reductions of the striatal volume most likely due to neurotoxic effects of some drugs of abuse.
The point being is that the research is not conclusive in these areas, and many of the findings have not yet been reproduced (which is a significant issue). Because our understanding of the brain is still pretty minimal, comparing fMRI scans of groups of people seems one step up from phrenology — we might as well be studying the bumps on their heads.
Most of the research support she cites is specifically looking at people who have a significant problem with overuse or pathological use of technology — not ordinary teenagers using technology for socializing. You can’t legitimately compare these two groups of people and say what applies to the pathological applies to all. This is a prime example of over-generalization of research results.
Last, most of the research she cites is correlational. Correlational research can only tell you that an association exists between two variables. It can’t tell you which way that relationship goes. Suggesting behavioral changes based on correlational studies may not result in the change one hopes for.
In short, there are no studies demonstrating that any of the things the author cites — video gaming, overall screentime, texting, whatever — are making children moody or “crazy.” It’s a simplification and meaningless generalization that insults children and teenagers who have serious mental disorders.1
What Can Parents Do to Help Their Teens?
While certainly parents should place reasonable limits on technology use by teens, they shouldn’t go overboard due to scare-mongering articles of this nature propagated by a pop-psychology website.
Instead, setting some simple, reasonable rules — such as not taking your phone to bed with you, overall daily time limits on gaming after homework has been completed — is far more likely to result in positive results and behavior change. Starting with these rules at an early age (age 6 is not too young) is a lot easier than trying to institute them with a teenager.2
Teens understand and exploit technology in a very different way than most adults do, because they grew with it integrated with their lives at a very early age. They use it to carry on social conversations that older adults tend to engage in face-to-face or over the phone. And they use it to be socially connected even when they’re physically apart.
Not understanding the prosocial, beneficial ways that most young adults engage with technology could cause unnecessary misunderstandings and conflict.
Dr. Dunckley ends by saying, “In today’s world, it may seem crazy to restrict electronics so drastically.” I agree — it is not a good idea at all. It suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how teens and young adults use technology to stay socially connected with their peers and maintain or improve their status within their group.
Trying to overly restrict their use of technology and their connectedness is likely to cause the teen more problems than it solves.
Read the original article: Screentime Is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy
Kuhn, S. et al. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational Psychiatry, 1, e53; doi:10.1038/tp.2011.53
- And, as most mental health professionals know, we still don’t know what causes mental disorders. Pathological technology use may be a contributing factor to some people’s problems, but it certainly is not the sole cause. [↩]
- Really, you can never start too early to have a frank discussion about the power and endless capacity of the Internet to offend, disgust, anger, embarrass, or upset your child. The earlier they understand that the Internet is a reflection of the rich colors and diversity of the world around them, the better prepared they will be to explore it. [↩]