Screens, children and the new iSchools

One of my Canadian friends has never let her son, now 13, on a screen at home. They don’t have a television and he’s not allowed to use the single household computer. My friend’s issue is the opportunity cost, what he could be doing instead, especially when he was younger. She’s not worried he’ll fall behind – he gets screen time at friends’ houses. He’s also fluent in two languages, lauded for his cello playing, and the most skilled ski jumper my son has ever seen.

I can’t decide if screen devices are the horsemen of the apocalypse or manna from heaven and perhaps they’re both, but increasingly research is leaning towards the horsemen at least where children are concerned. It’s possible I’m a dinosaur and my own parents had these fears about television. Today’s children have at their fingertips enormous potential to extend their knowledge, learn skills, organise life and live among folk. On the other hand, there’s a cool game called True Skate that you can play for so many hours your face goes red.

The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen use by children and young people suggest one or two hours per day and no screens in a child’s bedroom. One study from the University of Western Australia, which struck me as the cart leading the horse, says the guidelines should be changed because kids are using screens much more than two hours a day. In fact, 45 per cent of 8-year-olds and 80 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds were over the two-hour limit.

In our house, we’ve always had limits on screen time, even if they’ve been inconsistently applied. No screens after dinner, on school mornings, and an hour total on school days, two on weekend days. It’s the total hours a day that are difficult. At any rate, our rules have been blown out of the water this year because my son goes to a school where the students have iPads. They use them in school and for homework. He can be on a screen on the bus and during breaks. His screen time has tripled overnight.  

There’s more bad news than good about children (and grownups) on screens. There’s the effect of the screen itself, the light in your eyes that tells you it’s time to wake up even at bedtime, the hunched over posture that wrecks your skeleton and musculature, and how much fat you put by when you sit all day. And then there’s what you do on the screen, the harm it can do to your humanity, and what happens to your brain when you do it.

One recent study found that children who have smart phones or tablets in their bedrooms get less sleep than those who don’t, even less than those with televisions in their rooms. Another found that e-book readers have more trouble getting to sleep than paper book readers. Screens may inhibit a child’s ability to recognise emotions, one study found, although the methodology made me wonder. Half of a group of year 6 students had a normal week and the other half went on camp in a natural place without screens. They were tested for emotional face-reading and the campers did better. It’s possible something else in the different experiences was involved. Nature might make us better humans too.

The brain research is the most worrying. Turns out humans don’t multitask very well after all and those screens with their seamless flow of endless choices that let us shift focus every few seconds leave us in a happy fug of brain chemical-induced distraction. We get less and less able to think deeply or for any length of time about an issue. I’d write more on this but there’s an email in my in-box.

In childhood, my Canadian friend says, we learn in ways we never learn again. “When a child imagines a Lego plane in their hand is flying, they truly believe it is,” she said. “We never have another chance to learn through our imagination like that.” Today’s children, by all accounts, are exceeding the paediatrician-recommended limits for screen time, in their schools and at home. They’re part of a giant experiment. Let’s hope I’m the dinosaur, and the horsemen aren’t saddling up.