Gone are the days when we might get told, “you’ll get square eyes” if we’re sitting too close to the TV. In 2019, screens are everywhere and they impact almost every area of our lives. As adults we’re often glued to our phones, our laptops, or our tablets; living out a good portion of our lives online and googling everything that pops into our heads.
It’s hard to grasp the fact that many children in our societies today will never experience a world without texting or Netflix, or even superfast broadband. They’ll never get nostalgic over the dial – up sound, or be shouted at because someone needs to use the phone. On that note, they’ll also probably never have to dread the day that the phone bill arrives (by email obviously).
But does all that matter? Screen time has been talked about incessantly over the past few years, and with the emergence of tablets, apps, and YouTube channels all aimed at children, there's now a whole new minefield of parenting to navigate. How much screen time is okay? At what age is it appropriate for my child to have a smartphone? How do I stop in-app purchases? (No seriously, help!)
As a parent myself, there seems to be a conflict of feeling guilty at allowing my son to have so much technology in his life, and at the same time, a worry that he might not keep up with his peers. We’ve been told that too much screen time might lead to mental health issues, and with mental health awareness ever increasing, we often wonder what is best for our children today.
Recently, Andrew Przybylski (University of Oxford) conducted a study that suggests that there is no significant link between using screens and mental health issues. In fact, the study finds that ‘screen time is no worse for teenagers’ mental health than eating more potatoes’. Perhaps we can breathe a sigh of relief then (or start to question our potato consumption). Perhaps. Though I wonder whether we’re asking the right questions.
Should we be looking at how much time children are using screens for, or would it be more helpful to look at how screens are being used and what for? Rather than focusing on how much time is spent using screens, couldn’t we look at how children are using their time on the whole?
To me it seems like the whole debate side-steps the real issue. What are screens replacing in our lives? I say ‘our lives’ because the question doesn’t just apply to children of course.
My son has just turned four. He has a tablet, and loves Ryan’s Toy Review as much as the staggering number of other children across the world. In fact, I have been known to fully exploit this fact in order to recover from motherhood for a while, or have a shower without a commentary on the current state of my body. However, we still make time to spend together as a family. We bake cakes and go on walks, we read stories before bed and we splash in puddles. Most importantly, we talk to each other about what’s going on in our lives. Face to face.
As someone who grew up through the emergence of the internet, it took me a while to realise that as easy as it is to get consumed by a digital world, it just isn’t real. We can learn almost anything online these days. We can communicate with people across the world, and have access to more entertainment than we could possibly imagine. The only thing it seems we can’t do online is actually connect with one another. We cannot encounter one another as Martin Buber might say. We lose the ability to fully appreciate body language, or facial expressions, even with the arrival of Skype. The warmth of a hug, or the excitement of seeing the glint in someone’s eye is missing in pixels. Even the smell of our favourite person is wasted. Often when we’re online, we strive to be perfect and surrender our authenticity. We’re both more connected and less connected than we ever have been. We know what it is to be lonely.
What is worrying to me is that we may find that we end up not knowing how to relate to one another in any other way, if that isn’t already the case. It may be all we know, and all our children know. The government is under huge pressure to provide adequate sex and relationships education to children who already seem to know all about sex and little about intimacy. Whilst improving education in this area can surely only be a good thing, I would question whether again, we’re missing what the real issue is. I don’t think we learn about relationships and intimacy by being taught about them, I think we learn about relationships and intimacy by experiencing them, and as Johann Hari recalls in his book Lost Connections, Dr Hilarie Cash says “…we’re meant to be in connection with one another in a safe, caring way, and when it’s mediated by a screen, it’s just not there”.
Kim Sturgeon is currently in her second year of studying Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy at the Iron Mill College in Exeter, and is a student counsellor at Devon Mind. Kim enjoys infusing creativity, authenticity, and acceptance into all areas of her life including client work and parenthood.
You can get in touch with Kim via email
2. Buber M. I and Thou. New York: Touchstone; 1996.
3. Hari J. Lost Connections. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; 2018.