Media outlets thrive on the alarming news about the negative impact of digital technologies on our lives. We are especially worried when we read the news about children and young people. With carefully selected quotes from scientists published on reliable, trusted platforms, we have no choice but to believe that it’s all doom and gloom.
Or do we? Today I would like to show you how to read the news about digital wellbeing in mainstream media with a bit more critical eye. Let’s take this article published about a month ago in the Guardian (relatively trusted and respectable paper).
I recommend reading it before you continue with this post. When you read it, please reflect on your initial reactions, feelings and also actions that this article prompts in you.
What I can imagine comes us is fear, worry, sadness, helplessness and possibly a bit of anger. It’s not just about the tonality and the language of this piece (“concerns”, “rise”, “triggered”, “guard against”). We read that screens are damaging to our children’s health (most vulnerable members of our society), due to the pandemic (an event we can do nothing about) and thus we need to take them outdoors more (in economic reality when all of us parents are glued to screens even more). Of course, we feel horrible, we connect with our valid feelings of anger and hopelessness. And guess what: we end up sharing it with our friends too.
So how do we approach this article in a more critical way? What questions do we ask to ensure that we actually learn something from it?
Here is a quick list:
- What is the language and tonality of the article – negative and scary, balanced and neutral, positive and helpful?
- What is the key message of this article and how critically does it support it?
- What are the facts presented here and how can we validate them to ensure our kids are safe?
- Who is quoted? Can we trust them? How are the scientists quoted? Can we trust the article author?
- How is this article helpful? How does it improve my parenting and contribute to the better wellbeing of my children?
- What else is there?
I can very quickly respond to all of the points above to show you how I do it (please, keep in mind that I also have a bias, mine is very positive take on technology):
(1) The article is very negative; the tonality aims to scare and worry parents. I mean, look at this “Millions of pupils have been forced to switch to remote learning”. Children were not forced to go online; they had no other choice to be safe from a deadly virus. And the way I see it is that they had the opportunity to move online to continue their education…It all reads like a mini horror story and plays really well on our negative bias. It completely ignores years of positive psychology of gaming and other online activities. Avoiding the positive aspects of activities on screens is used here to prove the point, but it actually weakens it.
(2) The key message is pretty much this: “screens (regardless of what you actually do on them and what is the context of the activity) are always detrimental to young person’s health, the pandemic is making it worse, we are all stuck and cannot go outside so life is terrible and we are all doomed. Also: a gentle reminder that we are terrible parents and should be ashamed of ourselves too.” Personally, I do not wish to be exposed to such messaging; I have enough on my plate, thank you.
(3) Putting aside the major faulty assumption that screens are damaging – they are not, what we do on screens matters! – data is actually good. But its use is problematic. First of all, it does not prove the main point – for instance, a 15% increase in app use while living in lockdown is actually not so bad, considering the options to go out, socialise, play, travel etc., are no longer available. Secondly, the correlation and causation are not there – saying that eyesight issues are “most likely caused” by screens does not mean they actually are. (Please, do reread this last sentence and put your personal biases aside).
(4) Who is quoted? Qustudio is a startup delivering an app for controlling screen time of children – using their data is problematic because of course, they would conduct studies proving the value of their product (instead of educating parents and children to discuss the rules around screen time at home, they promote an automated solution to replace..well…parenting?)
The JAMA Network study in itself is very important. It flags up an issue with the eyesight of children due to increased screentime but it does not explore specific reasons – it assumes more time on screens caused bad eyesight but why? Was it the amount of time spent online altogether, less time spent on taking breaks and quality of transitions from and to work on screens? What did the children actually do on screens? What support (glasses, medical test) did they have during those 6 years? And finally, in the context of the Guardian article is rather misleading. The study was conducted in 2015-2020, so before the pandemic.
In the second part of the article, we find a long list of very established and trusted individuals working in the relevant scientific areas attempting to explain just how complex, nuanced and oftentimes actually positive the screen time usage can be. However, after such a strongly negative opening, their points come across as weak and vague. Even more worryingly, some researchers interviewed did not have their points featured at all.
(5) I can see how this article helps the traffic to the website, but I fail to see how it is supposed to help parents and children. If you step back and focus on your feelings – how does it make you feel right now? What actions does it prompt? Is this helping your parenting? Does it provide any specific solutions? Going more outdoors and spending more time with kids is not something we can do right now. In 2020-2021 reality parenting is challenged on so many levels, especially in poorer communities, that I cannot see how repeating old screen time myths can help. Personally, as apparent, I find it upsetting, depressing and distressing. And that’s very unhelpful.
(6) What else is there? This question allows us to identify the context. When you read this article, what else could be at play? Here simply: it’s worth asking a question: is it really the screens that are the problem, or are there other factors at play: pandemic, economy, parenting styles, wealth and class of families, digital parenting style. At the end of the day, to simplify this here, ask yourself: is my child online more, and if so, what is the actual impact on them? Can I talk to them about it and find out? Can I hear both negatives and positives? Is this article right in the context of our family?
We could, of course, unpack this article even in greater detail. If you wish to do that, make a list of statements and explore what they mean for you, what you can find out. Here is an example of how I do it:
The rise in children’s screen time during the pandemic has triggered calls for greater interactivity and outdoor exercise to bolster learning and guard against an epidemic of shortsightedness.
- “the rise” – we are in a pandemic, so it’s obvious but the rise implies a problem, personally I am happy my child is safe at home
- “screen time” – historically stigmatised as damaging to health, which is actually already confirmed as untrue by the Royal College of Children Paediatrics and Health, but still works, the terms itself evokes and is often chosen to scare parents
- “triggered calls” – who? how? where? how do I know this is true? who is worried? where is this measured?
Why do I post about this? Hopefully, you will see how much work and critical thinking can and should go into reading news articles like this before making any changes for the better wellbeing of our children. We all love our children and want the best for them. However, mini horror stories with simplified assumptions and biased use of sources are worrying. They are not helpful and, in my opinion, in 2021 should be avoided.
I would also like to add that avoiding articles like this, or even calling them out is not enough for us, mental health professionals and bloggers. We need to start counter-balancing this dominant narrative with kinder, more positive and more critical articles. As wellbeing professionals, we need to consider the impact of those media articles too: this terrible, misleading narrative has a huge negative impact on our families – especially on the vulnerable young people in families where parents don’t always care or have time to check the facts.
Personally, I commit to doing just that here, on this blog. So I look forward to your opinions and I hope that if I made faulty assumptions here, you will call them out too.