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We need to calm down about screen time A new wave of hysteria isn't backed up by science

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April 2, 2024   6 mins

“You stare at a screen. That’s all you do every night. No one wants to talk to you, and they get annoyed whenever you call.” Pete Etchells wrote those lonely words in a miserable teenage blog in 2002, just before 10pm on a bleak December night. He’s now a Professor of Psychology and the author of a new book on the science of screen time. To which you would be forgiven for responding: “Oh God — not another sermon on technology’s perils and the importance of a ‘digital detox’.”

After all, knocking technology seems to have been a collective New Year’s resolution for a certain sort of “psychologist”. Over the past month, global superstar Jonathan Haidt has been doing the rounds for his own new book, The Anxious Generation, warning how technology is “rewiring” children’s brains and “causing an epidemic of mental illness”. In a similar vein, author Abigail Shrier has been promoting her latest contribution, Bad Therapy, extolling the benefits of phoneless children. Certainly it’s a view that has found political currency on both sides of the Atlantic. Only last week, Florida’s Ron DeSantis signed one of the US’s most restrictive social media bans for children, while here in the UK the Government wants to ban phones in schools to improve educational standards.

It is into this fearful maelstrom that Etchells’s book enters, throwing down a rather unexpected conclusion into the mix.. Rather than spend page after page outlining how technology is corrupting Western children, he takes a more thoughtful view. Instead, he argues, “collectively, as a society, we have become too apprehensive — and even fearful — about screens”.

To justify this, Etchells explores the evidence for the harm caused by screens, and finds it unconvincing. Has screen time destroyed our attention span? Very unlikely. Does it interfere with adolescents getting enough sleep? Sometimes, depending on how and when the teenager is using the screen. Are smartphones destroying a generation’s mental health? It’s impossible to usefully answer such a sweeping question.

What studies have been done, he explains, are often small and poorly designed. They tend to rely on self-reporting, and elide correlation and causation. Some studies reported positive effects, or different effects for different groups. Building any kind of big picture is hindered by the fact that researchers are measuring different populations, different devices, different purposes, and different aspects of wellbeing or mental health.

“What studies have been done, he explains, are often small and poorly designed.”

Not enough evidence, then, but also no cause for immediate panic. Which raises the question: if no convincing evidence points to the harms of screen time per se, why are we so fearful of it? What does our unhealthy fixation on the power of technology say about us?

It’s true that young people, especially, are less happy, more anxious, and generally less able to cope with life than previous generations. A recent Resolution Foundation report found that a third of 18-24 year olds reported symptoms of poor mental health, and that one in 20 young people was prevented from working by ill-health. It’s also true that this rise in mental distress coincides with the spread of the internet, the smartphone and its seductive apps. But that doesn’t make for a simple, causal relationship.

Successive generations, let’s not forget, also have less independent time outside adult supervision, and fewer opportunities to take risks and initiatives for themselves. Kids first play outside when they’re a couple of years older than the age their parents did, and the kind of informal public spaces where their grandparents hung out together are turning into formal, privatised spaces for prescribed activities like shopping or organised sports. As Etchells points out, it’s fine to “talk about getting kids off their screens and ‘going outside’… but the reality is that, increasingly, there isn’t anywhere ‘outside’ for them to go”.

With this in mind, the increasingly online lives of young people may not be causing the diminishment of in-person interaction, but they are responding to it. Instead of hanging out in the park, teenagers exchange messages, memes and videos from their respective bedrooms. For some of them, this is a lifeline; for others, it is a well of insecurity and a conduit for bullying. As Etchells notes, “the question is not whether screen time affects mental health or vice versa, but why do some people thrive online and others struggle?” The answer, so far, seems to be that those who struggle offline will struggle online too.

Nevertheless, the form of those online interactions is different from the pre-digital social world, for better and worse. Take poor, unhappy, teenage Pete Etchells, who was dealing with life events — the death of his father — that would make any normal person depressed, In a previous generation, he might have poured out his feelings to a diary that would remain unread by anyone else. Or, a few years later, in that screenless generation, he might have drifted to the college bar, found other lonely souls and formed friendships that might slowly reach the pouring-out-of-feelings stage. Instead, his LiveJournal blog found like-minded people who were going through similar trials, and formed an informal support community across the internet, a community from which he eventually drifted away as his life improved.

Such screen-mediated forms of interaction are not necessarily better or worse than the old forms: for today’s young people, forming identities online, experimenting with projecting different aspects of ourselves to see how others respond, is both more and less controllable. More controllable, because you can edit your words and pictures, select your selfies, and craft your side of a conversation, in ways impossible in person. Awkward flirtations can happen remotely, without the other person reading your body language as you decide what to say or send next. Different versions of yourself can be shown to selected audiences, and adjusted to fit their response.

Less controllable, because Etchells isn’t convinced that we can create our ideal persona online, because we are constantly giving ourselves away in a million tiny interactions. Constant connection is now the social norm: it’s hard to switch off from a wider social environment and devote all your attention to the people sharing your physical space, when that means missing out on the endless flow of interactions. Technology, in other words, has reshaped the division between public and private. Any private space is now, by default, connected to a whole social world at all times, making solitude, or even intimate space, the exception. Conversely, when anything digital can be shared, what was a private conversation may be made public, so privacy becomes a relative and contingent quality.

It is not enough, then, to say that technology is simply not an issue. It is an inescapable part of our changing social fabric, for better and worse, and evolving with other social changes. But, as Etchells points out, that means we can’t look at our relationship with technology in isolation from those other changes.

Comparing the Screen Time panic with earlier iterations, like with video games in 1981 and even the trash literature panic of 1861, he notes a common assumption: “that we, as users, lack agency. It’s a form of technological determinism.” Like discussing food in isolation from the context in which we eat it — where and when, with whom, and why — talking about technology as an autonomous social phenomenon is perverse. Just like our eating habits, activities mediated by screens are still human activities. If our technology habits are not what we’d like them to be, we have to start with ourselves and our lives, not the objects of our habitual consumption.

This is why the “digital detox” is such an unhelpful approach. It frames our use of technology as inherently negative, something that takes over our lives so destructively that we must wean ourselves off it. But complete abstention, even for children, would be wildly impractical for most of us today. It would also mean losing all the positive aspects of technology: the convenience, the enrichment of our mental environment, and the myriad connections with other human beings that it enables. Etchells also notes the “puritanical undercurrent” of the digital detox, that regards the pleasure we take in much of our screen time as yet another reason to stop it.

Instead of using words like “addicted” or describing our brains being “hijacked”, we should be thinking about the content and context of our screen-mediated activities. When lonely teenagers talk to strangers online, the consequences depend far more on who they’re talking to, and why, and what else is happening in their lives, than on the hours of screen time they clock up.

As Etchells says: “We need to be more critical — not just of our own tech use, but of what we’re told about our tech use.”  It would be much easier to blame all the ills of the world on technology. But that narrative of powerful corporations and weak-willed humans is doing more than any FOMO-driven social media site to corrode our sense of agency, and our ability to change anything in the real world.


Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.

TimandraHarknes

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p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
2 months ago

Finally a piece with some nuance.
Thank you Tiandra. Looking forward to the new book.

Simon James
Simon James
2 months ago

I think you mean ‘a certain sort of “nuance”‘

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
2 months ago

It’s not nuanced at all. She starts by asserting that there’s a “screen Time panic” but doesn’t defend or attempt to prove this: it’s all argument by innuendo.
What does “collectively, as a society, we have become too apprehensive — and even fearful — about screens” even mean? I might even say that I’ve looked at the evidence he provides for this, and found it unconvincing.
If you want actual nuance, try Jean M Twenge.

George Locke
George Locke
2 months ago

The UnHerd herd does not like nuance. Especially when it comes after one of its sacred cows.

Jack Bourke
Jack Bourke
2 months ago

All this mumbo jumbo (Haidt included) misses the key point that the blue light from screens disrupts dopamine signaling in the brain via the eye. This is a huge problem for kids whose brains haven’t fully matured. Neurosurgeon Dr Jack Kruse breaks all this down in his 7 hour tutorial of Professor Huberman on Rick Rubin’s podcast. This is a physics/biology problem. The psychological and societal problems we observe are merely the symptoms.

David Colquhoun
David Colquhoun
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Bourke

Sorry, but the blue light scare stories are just quackery (or salespeople’s grift).

Simon James
Simon James
2 months ago

David, and Jack – if you can be this clear-eyed and certain after only relatively modest exposure to the relevant facts of this situation, why in the name of all that is holy is it so difficult to run a modern economy so that everyone flourishes?

p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
p3rfunct0ry 4p4th3t1c
2 months ago

Quackery!!

Dil Bert
Dil Bert
2 months ago

Ha! I’ll put this one in my diary for a laugh in 10 years’ time, when nobody will be able to deny what is already evident to anyone with an iota of common sense.

Guy Haslam
Guy Haslam
2 months ago

Jonathan Haidt has repeatedly made it clear that his book is not about ‘screen time’, it’s about the specific interactions of children and young people on social media that he claims (with plenty of evidence it seems) are detrimental to their social interactions, sense of wellbeing and so on.

David Baker
David Baker
2 months ago
Reply to  Guy Haslam

Similarly, though I admittedly haven’t read Shrier’s latest book, having heard her discuss it in several venues, she repeatedly emphasizes screens are not the only issue and are part of a wider social problem. In fact, the whole point of the book seems to be about masking normal life in therapy speak, not screen time.

The conclusion of this article was much more nuanced than the bold beginning and title. I would guess the conclusion is right on line with Haidt, Shrier, and many others, but I suppose the eye catching title and combative early tone gets more attention.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

It’s not “knocking technology.” It’s noticing that an abuse of anything tends to cause problems. That includes hours and hours of mindless screen time. How many adults have complained about the digital tether that makes them a slave of the office 24/7?
I’m convinced that is the aspect of work that led to talk of ‘work-life balance,’ which did not exist in the analog world. When you were done for the day, you were done. A colleague could call you at home but there was no laptop to hop onto. Whatever the issue was had to wait till morning for resolution.

Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
2 months ago

Why describe Jonathan Haidt as a “global superstar,” (which is delivered with a bit of a snarl) instead of as a “social psychologist” which is, you know, accurate and important when considering his contributions to the topic? Unherd used to be a place you went to get away from writers like this.

David McKee
David McKee
2 months ago

It’s hard to shake off the nagging feeling that, if I were making pots of money out of social media, this is exactly the kind of article I would want to see published.
The tone is gently reassuring. It pours vaguely worded cold water on all that inconvenient research. “All’s well, go to sleep, goooo to sleep…”
She mentions previous moral panics. This neatly pigeon-holes Haidt etc, without the bother of having to produce, you know, evidence to support such a bold assertion. Well, let’s mention another: the connection between smoking and cancer. It took decades for the public to hoist on board that these anti-smoking campaigners really did have a point, because there were plenty of articles like this to reassure them and encourage them to have another cigarette.
In the meantime, there are plenty of smartphone users running around with the electronic equivalent of sixty-a-day habits.

M Shewbridge
M Shewbridge
2 months ago

I’m becoming less interested in studies, and more interested in reasoning from first principles.

That’s “less interested in studies”, btw, not “completely dismissive of studies”.

It’s not screens per se that are the problem anyway, it’s what we do with them. We know that social media, for example, is designed to prompt little dopamine bursts extremely quickly and frequently. That is to say that social media is addictive. I know I am addicted to it to some extent; I can tell by observing my own behaviour. What studies of varying quality might say is irrelevant to me.

We also know that, given the massively multimodal nature of screens connected to the internet, some uses will be much more instantly appealing than others. Because of the way humans work, whatever is instantly appealing is unlikely to be of high real value. That’s why Taylor Swift is more popular than Bach.

So the problem isn’t screens themselves, but the ease with which they can encourage addictive, time-wasting and low quality consumption.

Why are some people more susceptible than others? Same as with any other addiction; they haven’t done enough to make the more difficult yet fulfilling reward pathways entice them. It takes work, a good upbringing and other “expensive” things for that to happen, and some people can’t afford it.

McExpat M
McExpat M
2 months ago

This piece will age badly. In fact, it’s already insanely myopic. The title will read like “We Need to Calm Down About Cigarette Smoking” in a few years time.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
2 months ago

The connection between digital media and teenage mental ill-health could be purely coincidental but there are too many other pressing issues that are also coincidental. Anger and depression and political division and loneliness and incivility and anxiety and…
With enough coincidences all pointing at one culprit, can you blame me for not wanting to wait any longer for the science to catch up with the evidence? Since approx. 2007, when the iphone hit the market, our culture has been debased very sharply. (And I’m comparing to the 70s and 80s, not exactly high points in the human story.)

Mechan Barclay
Mechan Barclay
2 months ago

We have become a slave to this “Correlation does not imply causation” meme. Could it be that our senses as adults, who have lived through the early age of the internet, can see a justified reason why phone screen time is a very difficult challenge. There have clearly been game changing alterations to our day to day existence that were never there before. Buying, talking, social media at the tip of your hands just was never ever a thing before. And it is easy to hear the technologists ringing in my ear that we’ve never had life so easy, but are hard of hearing or require loads of “studies” to maybe make a reluctant admittance that these phones can be dangerous. Could it be that as adults who have not been born with one in our hand can hold off on the addictive qualities, but we can all see kids subverted and caught in a world that demands they are plugged in, lest they can’t do anything in the world. So I’ll admit that I can do and learn much with a phone, but the long term effects on kids/ teenagers is truly life altering and not much in a good way.

Dominic English
Dominic English
2 months ago

Phones are a weirdly emotive issue. Understandably so I guess when they are essentially accused of stealing our children from under our noses. But it’s obviously so much more complex than that.

My worry is we put too much emphasis on them, and don’t see that we as a culture are responsible for many of our kids failings, which have nothing to do with phones.

Put it this way, if we took our kids phones away would they instantly become well adjusted citizens who do well at school? Of course not. But that’s the narrative we’re invited to buy into.
This looks at some context, plus at the explosion of mental health issues in the Uk. https://open.substack.com/pub/lowstatus/p/phoney-war?r=evzeq&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
2 months ago

“Put it this way, if we took our kids phones away would they instantly become well adjusted citizens who do well at school? Of course not. But that’s the narrative we’re invited to buy into.”
Instantly? Oh the straw man….! If we took away our kids’ phones – *and parented them well* – they would gradually see improvements in mental health. Gradually is pretty good in my opinion.

william langdale
william langdale
2 months ago

Can’t help but notice the other article on the home page “antidepressant prescriptions soar among UK children”.

Liam Tjia
Liam Tjia
2 months ago

Whenever I get one of my kids a new device I give them a month supply of Zoloft too

Adam P
Adam P
2 months ago

The data sources used by Haidt are not and should not be characterised as they are by this article. They are among the most reliable sources of data measuring longitudinal mental well being in this demographic.
The idea that some people use their screen time in more healthy and productive ways and not all screen time is the same is a fair observation. However, that is in no way a rebutall to the clear public health data being presented by Haidt. The data is in as they say. The impact is clear.
The thesis presented here is that there is no alternative to spending time online because kids cant go outside and therefore the question should be not whether kids can spend time online but how to spend it healthily. As a parent, i have to say this is an absolutely awful way of thinking. Economists use the concept of opportunity cost as a good way of expressing costs. Spending time online means less time available to do other things. Spending all your time online means less time; reading, watching complex narratives (films, tv shows), drawing, painting, crafting, talking, playing games, doing sports and a whole array of activities that are fundamental to physical and mental health. In fact, i would add that i now would rather see my 10 year old playing a complex narrative game than using any form of social media. He is only allowed to watch youtube for a limited time and thats all the social media he sees. The 13 year old has more liberty but screen time is well controlled.
As a parent, this is what i see happening when screen time is not controlled. So, what do we as working parents do about this? Make an effort to ensure kids have a mix of activities, get them playing sports, get them into things where their time is occupied in a healthy way. Then limited screen time is easier to manage and it will be easier (but not easy) to ensure their time is not spent solely death scrolling mindless and harmful Tik Tok (banned in our house).
We are re-wiring our kids and we have to take this very seriously. Ask any parent.

Mark epperson
Mark epperson
2 months ago

Just a hack getting paid to write propaganda. Nonsensical pap.

Elizabeth DuBois
Elizabeth DuBois
2 months ago

I find it very hard to believe the author actually read Haidts book. Or Shrier’s. And i dont think more than 5% of commenters did either.

I have. And the “counterpoints” in this piece are literally all the points Haidt makes in his book, in detail, with evidence, and heaps of nuance. But somehow here Haidts research is represented as if he drew opposite conclusions, and this other guy has the “real story”.

This is honestly the strangest article i have read in a very very long time.

Unherd… maybe read the book before publishing a piece that wreeks of… nepotism? I cant think of any other reason for this.