Parental Struggles with Screen-Time
As a parent, the general notion of screen-time is challenging to disregard. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, as it is a concept that bothers me. It is also an important concept that cannot be ignored as it hides real risks. What troubles me is not the widespread concern about the dangers of screen-related obsessive behaviors; that concern is healthy, and I share it. The problem I have is more about semantics, generalizations and dangerous nuances.
Screen-time is an expression that describes any time spent in front of a screen. Watching TV, playing video games, reading e-books, using social media, reading or watching the news, watching videos, coding, etc. It is all technically screen-time; but, is all screen-time bad?
Growing up, I spent countless hours in front of a screen. It was a massive monochromatic green phosphor screen, and it wasn’t pretty, but it was a screen nonetheless. In my teenage years, it was common for me to be on the computer for 8 to 10 hours every day. You could decide that my behavior was not healthy. Maybe I should have gone outside playing soccer or chasing girls. But, I wasn’t in front of a screen watching videos or playing games. I was in front of a screen learning to code, which eventually became my field of study and career.
If my parents had labeled that time as “screen-time” and decided that it was terrible, I wouldn’t have a career in tech. Was it an unhealthy use of my time? Would I have been better off by doing something else? If I could go back, I would not change a thing.
It is always interesting to me how the general label “screen-time” is used to describe specific concerns. Often it is used to categorize obsessive activities that present a risk of social isolation, being a victim of cyber-bullying, social media, or wrong information.
The general label “screen-time” means “time spent in front of a screen.” When you go dig, the concerns are really about the quality of “screen-time,” but the language confuses the concepts.
Language is powerful! I still confuse the concepts of “feeling” and “hearing” because in Italian the word sentire is used to describe both things. Growing up in Italy, the association between the two concepts became very strong, and it is indelible in my mind, permanently engraved in my way of thinking.
Similarly, if we all decided to label the risks of being attacked on the street with risks associated with “walk-time” we’d probably end-up being concerned about walking and we’d start monitoring kids’ walk-time. A similar thing would happen if we associated “people-time” with the risks related to interacting with people.
Can you imagine somebody saying, “We should limit our kids people-time?” I don’t think so. Social interactions are critical for us to grow into functioning adults. However, you can imagine somebody saying, “We should make sure kids don’t spend time with bad influencers.” That’s a no-brainer! It is all people-time, but we don’t use that terms because it is a dangerous generalization.
Getting Used To a New Lifestyle
Lifestyle revolutions due to significant technical or social changes have always created turmoil and fears. When printing was invented, it was seen as a dangerous new form of communication. Freedom of the press was attacked for three centuries.
A few hundred years ago, novels were considered dangerous and were suspected of leading people astray from real life. Today, reading stories is regarded as an excellent use of time, and we encourage children to read as much as possible. The difference is that we are no longer afraid of reading novels as something new that is changing the way we live. Today, we fully appreciate the benefits of reading.
The explosion of portable devices is dramatically changing the way we live. Screen-time doesn’t require being at home in front of the TV. It can be anywhere, including the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The can cause a sneaky form of addiction.
The Problem with Addiction
Addiction is an obsession that gets in the way of your happiness and goals, cannibalizing other aspects of your life. Addictions are harmful, they can destroy you.
Many forms of entertaining delivered through screens can be very addictive. Video games, mindless YouTube videos and reality TV are examples. When unhealthy habits form around anything, something must be done to bring things back to a balanced state.
Would you condemn reading-time because reading books can be addictive? That is not a rhetorical question. I think that in some cases the answer is yes. If a person were unable to have a healthy life because of obsessive reading habits, that would be a problem. For that person reading might not be the best thing to continue doing without limits. But, would you prohibit that person from reading street signs or tax forms? I venture to say that you wouldn’t. That’s because that kind of reading is less addictive and it is necessary to survive.
So, in that sense, management of screen-time is essential. Not as a mindless and blind limit to all “screen-time,” but as nuanced and careful control of the type of content that is consumed through screens.
Managing an Addiction With Constant Temptations
One of the differences between “good” screen-time and “bad” screen-time is that switching from one to the other is effortless and tempting. You could be reading a book on your phone Kindle application and get interrupted by a Facebook notification. If you are trying to kick a Facebook addiction, that is a problem. It’s like serving milk to a recovering alcoholic in a bar with free drinks lined up on the counter.
So, lousy screen-time has a way of interrupting good screen-time, causing all screen-time to become a potential problem. For kids, that is very problematic and needs to be regulated.
Learning to write requires an enormous amount of reading and writing time. If you use a computer to read and write, that counts as screen-time. Learning to code also requires a massive amount of screen-time.
I am convinced that in one hundred years we’ll look at today general concerns about “screen-time” as an oddity of the past. That’s because we’ll have learned to manage it, and we’ll have tools to help us prevent those kinds of problems. A life without that knowledge will not be conceivable. Things that today are a challenge will have common-sense solutions, making our generation look like fools.
I am also sure that we’ll be concerned about some new kind of revolution that we will not know how to deal with. The cycle is destined to continue forever, making the past seem almost inevitably foolish and the future dark and scary.
People lifestyle change, and it is essential that we continue to adapt and evolve. We need to embrace change, not be blindly scared of it. Regulation of unhealthy habits is good, but over-regulation slows down progress. The right balance and understanding of the nuances is essential.
I do believe that we should regulate addictive and unproductive screen-time and block habit-forming content from becoming a distracting problem, especially for children. However, I am also convinced that we shouldn’t be afraid of active and healthy screen-time, especially screen-time related to important learning activities such as coding, reading or studying important material. The difference is essential, and the two things should never be confused.
Tools and Solutions
Managing addictive content and letting good content pass through our children’s screens is a problem that we are still wrestling with. There are many software and hardware solutions, but nothing seems particularly useful. Apple and Microsoft have failed miserably to invest enough in this area, and the answers built into their OSs are rough. I am sure there are other products on the market, but we are still waiting for something that works well.
The ideal solution to this problem should be adaptive. Something that monitors usage of all devices of a given user has a basic understanding of the various types of content, the age of the user, and learns what is a becoming a “problem” and what is healthy. The information could be shared in a block-chain for global availability, and should not contain any personally identifiable information for privacy. In the end, I believe that AI will eventually resolve this problem, but we are not there yet.