The Psychologist Presents… Screen time debunked

An edited transcript of Professor Andrew Przybylski’s session at Latitude Festival this summer. Our editor Jon Sutton introduced the talk and hosted the audience questions at the end.

24 September 2019

Today, we’re going to talk about screen time in terms of three myths, or three misconceptions that you might have, understandably, as a result of media coverage. I'm going to talk about three consequences of how we think about or talk about screen time... and then three kinds of actions that you might take if you have young people struggling with screen time, or if you are yourselves. 

Screen time is a ‘Goldilocks topic’, for our attention. Scientific topics can be ‘too hot’, ‘too cold’, or ‘just right’ when it comes to whether they grab the attention of the masses. Though many people in this audience might care about things that we study as psychologists or as neuroscientists, most of the public really don’t care about 80, 90, 95 per cent of what we do as a basic scientist on a day-to-day basis. So that's the cold. 

There are other kinds of science that we tend to care about a whole lot more: a new cancer drug, or the weird kind of galaxies that might be out there. Screen time is serious enough that we click on articles that we think are new and important, but not so serious enough to receive the kind of scrutiny that might go along with a claim about a new cancer drug, or a new galaxy. Because there's that asymmetry, it has always driven, and will always drive, clicks and editorials and popular book sales and gurus.

This is a cycle that's not new with respect to technology. We might think there's something special about Instagram or FaceBook, but if you go back through the historic record, back through news coverage, you will see that this proceeds my birth as a topic people have been quite worried about.

So first, some myths…

Myth 1: That screen time is a thing

Philosophically and theoretically, we adopt a model of dualism when we talk about screens. The idea is that we were all born, many of us, were born in this wonderful analogue, organic world, replete with human experiences where we make eye contact, we socialise, we learn, we grow and we fall in love. And then at some point, screens were invented, or some new kind of screen was invented, whether it be a smartphone, or a DVD player, or Napster, or Amiga… there's a new type of screen, which sits next to whatever our idea of the analogue world is. We’ve been given or sold a screen that we're not familiar with, through a new kind of ‘other’ technology.

Yet if you push at this idea, you find that people have some pretty nuanced ideas or definitions of what that ‘other’. What are the parts of screens that have actually always been part of your lives, and maybe a good part or bad part? And what is this new thing, what is this other?

In fact, there are many kinds of engagement with screens. There's development of your ideal self, there's engaging with peers, there is showing off, there's falling in love or falling into something else, and there's also human play. And so, in a lot of ways, the digital world isn't this dualistic thing. The things that we do that are mediated by screens, they're not separate or separable. Talk about screen time like it's a solid, like it's its own thing, is probably a myth that we should bust. 

Myth 2: That we are measuring screen time

When we study screen time, essentially we're using a model from the 1970s in order to measure it. We are asking people, either parents, or children, or teenagers: 'Think back on the last day, the last month, the last year of your life – how much time did you spend on screens? Playing games, trying to find love, watching TV...' 

Say we were interested in measuring the relationship between eating and obesity, or exercise and fitness, we wouldn't give people a food-time questionnaire – 'In the last day, in the last week, in the last month, in the last year, how much time did you spend eating?' – and then try to correlate that to some other outcome we care about. Yet that's what has been done from about around 1976 until whatever the latest most scary headline you read about screens was. 

Because we're not clear about what screen time actually is, that sloth, that lack of care, feeds directly forward into measurement. When you're reading these headlines, 99 per cent of the time, what you're reading is the equivalent of a food-time questionnaire. 

Myth 3: That screen time causes problems

I can promise you – as somebody who spends a huge amount of time reading these articles and trying to figure out how the studies were actually done – nobody has provided evidence of causal harm or causal benefit from types of screens. The closest we sometimes get, is they lock 13 undergraduates in a lab overnight and leave them with Instagram or not and then they measure how well they slept in a sleep lab, or assess their screen time use and self-esteem, or their screen-time use and depression or mood. And that correlation gets reinterpreted as causation. 

Much like the idea that eating ice cream and murders are correlated with each other, we wouldn't assume that ice cream sales drive death. We would assume that if we have ice cream sales and good operationalisations of murder, there might be a third intervening variable, something like temperature or heat, young people being outside and being more likely to get into fights. But then again murder is not a Goldilocks topic, so we really can't get away with headlines every single week where a professor claims that ice cream drives murder.


What kind of wages are we paying for the sin of our arrogance and the sins of our sloth and laziness when we talk about and we think about screens? 

The first one is that there's some pretty dumb advice out there about screens. The American Academy of Paediatrics had, for 40 years, what was called the ‘two by two’ rule. No screens for kids under two, and no more than two hours of screens for those above two. This was the advice of the land until October 2016, when they abruptly stopped providing it. It's not like anyone did a new study or started magically listening to me (I checked – nobody cited me). Instead, they determined that nobody was able to follow the advice. But that doesn't mean the advice went away. If you go on the Australian Department of Health and Human Services, or the American one, they actually still refer to this... even though the original rule never had any evidence to support it in the first place, and was retracted. 

In the absence of evidence we've put out all kinds of different types of dumb advice for parents, that really gives them all these different hills to die on in terms of quantity of screen time. So ‘don't give phones to kids until they get to year 8 in school’. Really these kinds of things repeat the mistakes of smashing all the spinning wheels in the kingdom, because this requires you to believe that something magic happens to you when you turn 17, 18, 19, that will somehow make you be an effective, mature, adult user of screens. I don't think we have any reason to expect that.

The second consequence of us cutting corners when we think about or we study screens, is that actually we open ourselves up to be taken advantage of by people who can make money out of the issue... people selling popular books that come out about once every three months, and going on speaking tours. (I was not paid for this presentation, by the way!). Then you have now personal coaches and tutors, nannies who will come to your home, and charge £250 per hour to help you de-screen your household. This is called digital minimalism. I really feel bad for my mortgage that I didn't come up with this idea. 

And then kind of on the high end, on the stuff that really keeps me up at night, we have people who are trying to set up clinics in the West that in some way mirror what's happening in China and other parts of the world. In China, these kinds of digital detox boot camps – charging thousands of dollars a month – have actually led to deaths and suicides.

There’s a third kind of cost, a third kind of expense that we're paying by not digging down on screens and asking critical questions. There's a lot of really important regulation that has to happen around technology companies, and how they interface with our lives and our data, and especially our young people. And really this has led to some dramatically stupid regulations from countries. So in China where there's more control over corporations, they now build in timers, they give people less experience points, and they use facial recognition technology to make sure that kids haven't played games for a certain amount of time. 

In the United States, new laws meant to curb screen time or restrict child access to technology, tend to get struck down when they meet the judiciary. But in South Korea, for eight years now they've had what's called the Shutdown Law, or Cinderella Law. The internet turns off for under 16s between midnight and 6am. This was in place for seven years before anyone bothered to test if it worked. A law impacting an entire country that led to kids stealing their parents' IDs, going on the black market to use weird VPNs that leaked private information. How much sleep do you think the law saved in the average South Korean student? A minute and 23 seconds.


What can we do about this, if we have young people or ourselves to take care of, when we're talking about or thinking about screens? First and foremost, we need to be involved and we need to be curious about how we use these forms of digital technology. If screens feel like an ‘other’, that's really an opportunity to take more interest and more curiosity about the medium, the app, the technology. Surely that’s preferable to a red warning klaxon, 'danger Will Robinson', right? Your feelings and anxieties or fears about technology is an opportunity... pay attention. Freud said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. I'd argue that screens probably serve the same function into the mental lives of our young people. They offer another opportunity for us to connect.

Instead, we find that the kind of advice that has been given is best characterised as ‘restrictive mediation’. You restrict to a certain amount of time, to a certain place, on school nights, certain content. These have what psychologists call backfiring effects. By restricting something you make it a forbidden fruit. Do you really want to make a 13-year-old choose between telling you that something scary happened to them online, or having their phone taken away? You don't want to have that kind of conditionality, where if one toe steps out of line, you're going to smash all the iPads in the house. Try to be involved, try to be curious, think of it as an opportunity. 

Talk about the rules that you set, and who should set rules. Try to do three things. When you're providing a rule, provide what's called a meaningful rationale. You know your young person more than anyone else in the entire world... Explain for them what your reasoning is, at their level.

The second is, engage in perspective taking. So kids aren't going to like rules, but try to communicate that you see what draws them to the activity, you appreciate that, you appreciate how setting this rule kind of just stomps on their hopes and dreams. 

And then the third is one that I fail at continuously with our five-year-old… try not to use controlling language. Try not to say 'should', 'must', 'have to', 'ought'. This sounds like pressure coming down from above, like a meteorite. It's not to say don't have rules, it's not to say don't lay down the law, it's only to say that this is a young person who at some point is going to have screens and you're not going to be around... the idea is that they take some of those ideas and make them internal. 

When we're dealing with digital playgrounds that we fundamentally can't control, and we can't look into because these companies have privatised childhood, we need to try to make informed decisions. Two things are statistically significantly correlated with each other, that does not mean anything to you. That doesn't even mean anything to me as a scientist or as a parent. The question is, if you've got two kids to put to sleep, are you going to use Octonauts to get the older one to fall asleep while the younger one needs a little bit more help? Our research shows that for most kids, the largest possible screen time effect for one hour of screens is three minutes of lost sleep. So I'm willing to have my kid lose three minutes of sleep if I can get my two-year-old to bed properly. It’s about informed trade-offs.

What if you remain worried about screen time, about when it actually has an impact? I can tell you a kid needs between about five and six hours of screens every single day before we will be able to tell a difference in their behaviour. So if you're below that, if you have to die on a hill about screen time, I'd set it up in the five or six hour range.

This doesn't mean you shouldn’t make rules. But I want to conclude by saying that there is probably nothing special about screens. Think of the lightbulb, which changed how we sleep, how we work, how we reproduce, how we eat, whole ecologies on this planet. Even the clothes washer, which freed up hours of life every single day because women didn't have to be washing everyone's clothes all the time. Screens are, technologically speaking, a blip. 

Modern childhood and modern adulting is by far a newer more impactful thing than screens themselves. This has all happened before, and this will all happen again. In 2002, the author Douglas Adams proposed a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1)     Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and just a natural part of the way the world works;

2)     Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it;

3)     Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

And so people have been complaining about kids being addicted to technology, to digital technology, since before I was born. We might talk about Fortnite now; 18 months ago we were talking about Pokémon Go, before that we were talking about World of Warcraft, before that we were talking about Dreamcast, and when the first legislation came through in the UK to limit screen time, they were talking about Space Invaders. 

There isn't as much new here as you might think. If we get fixated on screen time instead of asking much more careful questions about what kinds of experiments are being run on us by these companies, who owns our data, we're going to miss out on a chance to hold these companies to account.

Audience questions

Audience member: I missed the first bit of your talk so I don't know if you covered this, but do you make a distinction between different kinds of screen time? And I see with my 12-year-olds that there's a real sort of endorphin release of playing, an addictive quality to playing some of the games that they play… so whilst I'd be really happy for them to be working on PhotoShop or whatever for screen time… Or is that also a myth?

AP: There were media researchers in the 1970s who were interested in television, and what's basically happened is people have simply taken the word 'television' out and they've added other things in without thinking about it. So yes, there are surveys that put 'social media' in, but it's left to the person who fills it out to kind of estimate that... from a scientific perspective it is actually a dumpster fire.

To the second point, if you read reports of parents in 1982 talking about video arcades in this country, there's nothing different about what they say about Space Invaders in a pizzeria than what they might say about online gaming now. So is there evidence that these things are more addictive in terms of dopamine release? No. That's all nonsense, and that research is very very poorly done. And the very fact that they find results with such small sample sizes actually tells us the researchers are likely operating from a biased perspective. 

Audience member: What is a worse thing for parents to be anxious about? If we all get a bit more advanced and less worried about screen time, what will we do with our spare anxiety? And how will that damage our children?

AP: I think we should be curious about our anxieties. We should figure out what is it about the screen or about the technology, as a parent, as it's being used, that is actually making me feel dissatisfied? That's a very important piece of information that will inform my parenting. I think negative feelings, feelings of sadness, feelings of anxiousness, feelings of disquiet, I think that that can be mobilising. But if that leads to abstinence-only pledges around screens, that kind of prohibition mindset, we're setting ourselves up to fail as a society. So if you feel anxious, examine that, because that'll inform your next set of failures as a parent. I say this as someone who fails consistently.

JS: I guess my personal anxiety as a parent centres around screen time displacing some other more valuable activity. ‘Come on Reg, why are you on your screen? You could be learning to play the guitar, you'll never regret learning to play the guitar.’ But I think I started to get over that when I actually stood outside the room and observed him playing Fortnite. All sorts of stuff was going on that I didn't fully understand, but it certainly wasn’t mindless time. There have to be prosocial and problem-solving benefits to what a lot of young people are doing.

AP: There might not be benefits – things that we can measure as psychologists. There might be indirect benefits, there might be soft skills. If they can organise 30 people in an online game, they're more likely to be recruited as a sergeant or a squaddie, because they've got organisational skills. We don't know how these things play out.

You should look up Max Weber, the German sociologist and philosopher. We have all these models that aren't just Descartes' idea of digital dualism... the analogue and the digital. We're also bringing a lot of our sense of ourselves: protestantism and the spirit of capitalism, the work ethic. Do young people actually have to be making maximal use of every second of the day. Can’t they just chill the hell out? And maybe the way that they chill out is different than the way that I chilled out. And maybe that's okay.

Audience member: Are apps that limit screen time better or worse than rules that the parents make up?

AP: I think that's a bit like asking is a parent's guiding hand on the back better than putting stabilisers on a bicycle? Maybe these tools are useful, maybe they're another weapon in your storehouse as a parent or as a young person who's trying to take active control. But the tech firms keep this data. We don't know if these things work, yet this is another thing that's being sold to us – control of time. I think we deserve better as a society, and as parents. 

Audience member:  On some devices you can get apps or stuff in the settings that helps, like a night mode, does that actually take away the blue light from the screen?

AP: That's a great question. Typically it's 'x screens, y some outcome - sleep', the correlation between two things. Is there a z in the middle, something like blue light? But those blue light studies, they have 15, 20, 25 people in them. So even if blue light was a problem, the experiment itself doesn't look at enough people to test the hypothesis properly, and this is something called insufficient statistical power, or insufficient test sensitivity. And so, I like using the app that changes how blue or how yellow the screen is, I consider it a feature, but I think it would be silly for us to just consider ‘job done, my screen's yellow’.

Audience member: I wanted to ask a bit more about benefits. I was thinking about neurodivergent friends of mine, so autistic friends that might find socialising online or on a screen to be the only possible way they have to socialise without deep anxiety, and valuing one form of socialising another one, might be actually quite impactful. And then also thinking about the way we might use screens, say for someone who's visually impaired who might be sat right back there, the only way they can see you is via their screen…

AP: There's two things there. The first is actually there's a renaissance going on, in terms of accessibility in online digital spaces. In terms of neurodiversity it allows people to choose the channels and the modes of contact… And then there’s using these mediums as ways of either helping understand or reveal differences that somebody might not themselves be aware of – different forms of diagnosis. So the way you play a game might be an indirect indicator of early onset dementia. That's a really promising area that's under explored.

Audience member: I understand what's been said in the headlines, data not being very reliable, the sample sizes being very small… but has there then been research which actually does show these things are not true?

AP: I should be more specific. There are loads of studies that show that screens are bad for people. The thing that I'm trying to explain is that those studies, even with large samples, are very poorly done, because essentially they capitalise on chance when they analyse their data. There are findings, but we shouldn't trust them. 

On the other end, there are new ways of doing science that protect us against our pre-existing biases. So one of my colleagues and I, we were interested in violent games and aggression. What we did to test hypothesis well, to provide evidence for the null, evidence for nothing, is, we wrote our hypotheses down ahead of time, we designed our study ahead of time, we wrote the first third of the paper – the introduction and the methods, how we were going to test the hypotheses around game play and aggressive behaviour – and then we sent that out for peer review before we collected our data. So I couldn't infect my own results with my bias (we're always the easiest ones to fool). And when we adopt these modes of science, where we prevent ourselves from bias, that's where we find the null results. When we can do whatever we want, when we can spray the side of the barn with a machine gun, and then paint the circles afterwards… that's where we find results for screens.

JS: That really is a fantastic question, because it opens up that wider debate which you can find more about on our website about open science and replication, and the whole way that science is done.

As a former psychologist, I find it very frustrating that there are questions like this of societal importance that we still don't really have decent answers on, because the questions been asked have been the wrong questions or we've asked them in the wrong way. And screen time is an area where academics like Andy are leading the way in the open science movement. Andy said to me before, there's no such thing as open science, there's just science, and bad science… but a lot of the things he's talking about in terms of how to do research well are important and a great note to end on. Always leave them wanting more, as my old Dad used to say… great man, terrible anaesthetist.

So thank you very much, do find us on Twitter @psychmag... enjoy the rest of your festival, and thank you very much to Latitude and to Professor Andrew Przybylski.

- Find more from Professor Przybylski in our archive and also more on screen time generally. Check out our previous Latitude sessions. We hope to return at next year's festival, which is on from 16-19 July.