Screen time and children: what’s the problem?

Screen time – that shorthand for the hours children spend on digital devices – has become a contentious topic in recent years. Blamed for everything from obesity to sleep issues and cyber bullying, kneejerk reactions have tended towards the hardline. Politicians have called for time limits on social media and the debate has become both politicised and polarised.

Children looking at a screen

It is confusing for parents and for the educators who want to support them. Last week saw two new developments. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stepped into the fray with screen time guidelines for small children linked to advice on physical activity and bedtimes. It advised that children under the age of three should not watch TV or sit playing games on a tablet, while those aged three and four should not have more than an hour of screen time a day. Feathers were ruffled.

Meanwhile, a new study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) suggests that there is little evidence of a link between the amount of time teenagers spend on devices and their general wellbeing. Both the WHO advice and OII study have, of course, been criticised.

Evidence-based approach

However, a sensible report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) at the start of the year was something of a breath of fresh air amid the panic and confusion. It took an evidence-based and measured approach to the issue, declining to lay down the law with age-related time limits but instead empowering parents to monitor the effects of time spent on digital devices by asking themselves four straightforward questions:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  • Does screen use interfere with sleep (with advice of no screens an hour before bed)?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time use?

This seems to be a simple and sensible way to get to the heart of the critical question: is there actually a problem? As the RCPCH says,

“If a family can ask themselves (or be asked by others) these questions, and are satisfied with the answers, then they can be reassured that they are likely to be doing as well as they can with this tricky issue.”

The UK Safer Internet Centre offers some similarly straightforward tips for parents in its pages on screen time:

  • Use digital devices together
  • Set clear expectations
  • Be informed
  • Establish good habits early on

Quantity or quality?

But how useful is the whole notion of ‘screen time’ anyway? In an excellent blog post in which he urges maximising creative time rather than minimising screen time, Mitch Resnick comments,

“Of course there’s a problem if children spend all their time interacting with screens — just as there would be a problem if they spent all their time playing the violin or reading books or playing sports. Spending all your time on any one thing is problematic. But the most important issue with screen time is not quantity but quality.”

At London CLC we would argue that there is a crucial difference between different types of screen time, a distinction that is often overlooked in the moral panic over children’s screen time. What you do on a screen is arguably more important than the amount of time you spend on it. A scheduled video chat with a relative in a far away country or even a parent who is working away from home for a few days is a world away from mindless scrolling. Parents’ alarm about screens is often a more justifiable alarm about products which monetise our (children’s) attention. In this respect, setting time limits isn’t useful.

Schoolchildren looking at screens

However, this is at odds with government minister Matt Hancock’s call for time limits on social media use and the guidance in US and Canada. It can also be contrasted with the Department for Education’s recent EdTech Strategy, which advocates the use of home learning early years apps “to improve literacy and communication skills for disadvantaged children”. It’s a complicated area and one that has been explored in depth by LSE professor Sonia Livingstone in her highly respected research into this area. Her work with Alicia Blum-Ross, The Trouble with Screen Time Rules, is an excellent introduction to the argument that the debate needs to shift focus to context, content and child. More recently, she has called for constructive guidance that helps parents realise the advantages of the digital age as well as avoid its harms, such as the positive smartphone opportunities that become evident when adults take the time to find out from children and young people how they use their phones and the benefits they gain from them.

How devices differ

Lumping all use of digital devices into one category of ‘screen time’ also fails to recognise the differences between using phones, tablets and laptops – and the different things young people do on them. At our last online safety conference, Revealing Reality presented their report Through the Looking Glass which explores smartphones in particular, looking at

  • How smartphones’ limitations influence software design and user behaviour
  • How smartphones’ versatility often comes at a cost
  • The illusions of smartphone’s meeting all the user’s needs
  • How to better equip young people with ‘digital skills’ in order to educate and empower

It notes that smartphones are optimised for consumption rather than creation. There is also evidence that devices and the platforms we use on them are designed to addict us to certain behaviours, as Shoshana Zuboff has explored in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Functionality is limited but smartphone users default to using them for everything, even if they are not the best tool for the job. This creates an illusion that the smartphone meets all their needs – for connection, creativity, exploration and productivity – even if there might be better, smarter, more meaningful tools.

A digital skills framework

It calls for a digital skills framework that helps young people to understand that “being digitally skilled requires the appreciation of a wider toolkit and the strengths, weaknesses and cost of using tools in any given situation.”

For us at London CLC, this taps into the wider debate around the need for greater digital criticality – for everyone. We all need to be more critical learners in the digital age (as we set out in our Bett talk in January) using the right tools for the job, whether that’s consuming, creating or evaluating information. This applies just as much to parents and educators reading news stories and politicians’ pronouncements on screen time as it does to the young people we seek to support.

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Upcoming CPD

Summer primary school computing conference
Summer primary school computing conference

This event will build upon the Autumn computing conference by inviting subject leaders to reflect on their year in the role, sharing their successes and challenges. It will also introduce new ideas, tools and approaches through talks and practical activities led by members of the CLC team, with opportunities for attendees to share their own expertise and experience. Over the course of the conference activities will touch on the three main areas of the computing curriculum: computer science, digital literacy and information technology. We will also feature advice and examples illustrating the use of technology to support blended learning.

- 15:30
Computing subject leaders, Teachers...
Creative Arts, Digital and children – CLC meets More Than Robots online
Creative Arts, Digital and children - CLC meets More Than Robots online

Combining forces for the first time, the Connected Learning Centre and More Than Robots have created a session for teachers, youth organisations, researchers and policymakers interested in the digital provision of creative arts for primary aged pupils.


The Play Observatory - Prof. John Potter

“In their own words”: Westminster Abbey & CLC digital projects - Sian Shaw

Building (and maintaining) a city-wide primary arts curriculum to raise attainment - Kate Fellows

More to be added soon

This interactive and inclusive meet up will include inspiring examples of how technology can be used to support learning in music, visual art and drama in person and online at home drawing on our experiences as Tate Exchange associates and our partnership work with a range of cultural institutions.

This informal event is an opportunity to discuss real examples of what does/doesn’t work, meet colleagues from other sectors working on similar challenges and share useful research, news or updates

The morning will include case study presentations (details below) followed by a Q&A. There will also be an opportunity for a rapid sharing round for launches, project updates or requests for help and a short break to avoid zoom brain drain.

- 11:30
KS1, KS2
Subject leaders, Teachers...

Upcoming Special projects

The News Project
- 14:25

Special project in collaboration with First News Education

For a third year, building on two successful previous projects, we are once again partnering with the children’s newspaper First News, fellow member of the national Making Sense of Media and News Literacy networks. This special project with a literacy, PSHE and citizenship, as well as computing focus, highlights our specialist interest in this important aspect of digital and critical literacy.

The News Project will enable participating classes from year 5 to immerse themselves in news and current affairs using First News and the Bett award-winning First News iHUB, which will be provided free of charge during the school-based part of the project over a six week period. Under the guidance of their teacher, pupils will be supported in their development as a community of fully informed news readers. Classes will test their new critical skills and knowledge in the culminating virtual celebration event which will include a news competition and team-based critical literacy and editorial activities. After the event, schools will be able to use the resources from the day in their school.

The project will launch with an introductory CPD session for teachers to set the context, demonstrate resources and to plan for the school-based activities. 

Initial CPD session - Thursday 21st October 4pm-5.00pm. 

Project work undertaken in school - October and November.

Special event - Thursday 25th November 9.30am-2.45pm.

The Garden Museum

The CLC is once again partnering with the Garden Museum to offer a partnership project for KS1 pupils (primarily suited to Yr2). Located next to Lambeth Palace on the bank of the Thames, the museum has an inspiring collection that provides the ideal stimulus for young learners to explore the world around them.

Pupils will use technology alongside the museum’s collection to explore the wonderful world of seeds.

  • How are they planted?
  • How do they spread?
  • What is inside them?

 The Garden Museum has a large collection of seeds and tools that pupils will engage with.

These half-day sessions will take place at the Garden Museum.

There is a limited number of dates available, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

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