Screentime in the #COVID19 Pandemic #DigitalParenting

So you’ve discovered the delights of chats via Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Houseparty, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or one of other communication apps that have become familiar options over the last few weeks! Think about the opportunities this has allowed you to continue to connect with family and friends, or, as I have found, even more contact that I may have expected when I am on the other side of the world from many friends!

In the midst of this pandemic, when you are just trying to keep your head above the water, maybe you’re trying to work from home, the world feels like it’s going mad (isn’t it?), and then you feel guilty about the amount of screentime that your children are getting at present! Add to that we’re hearing that Shakespeare used a previous crisis to write a play (or something like that), but I’m going with Matt Haig on this one: ‘The current era is crap enough without having to feel guilt that we aren’t learning Greek and painting watercolours of daffodils. If you brushed your teeth today and got showered and ate something and spent ten minutes not looking at the news, then well done, it’s an achievement’.

Moral panics around screentime have been around for many years, and in fact at the introduction of every new kind of technology has led to media-driven fears that society is on the brink of collapse because of that technology. Rather than focusing on the possibilities and opportunities that technology offer us (which many are seeing the benefits of right now), the media focus has been upon addiction, and led to a focus on screen time as a measure of whether we, and our children, have good habits with our technology. Around this have sprung up a range of organisations who reiterate this message, until we are convinced that we are bad parents/carers for letting children spend time on screens.

Despite the pandemic, my advice is not that different from ‘peacetime’! As demonstrated by the advice given by Oxford University, and from research at London School of Economics, it’s far more important to focus on the quality rather than the quantity of screentime (without getting bogged down in the idea that it all has to be ‘productive’ – there’s space for fun too!). In more normal times I would suggest that people went to the park and learnt e.g. new football moves from YouTube, or went for a walk with something like Pokemon Go or Wizards Unite – and this may be possible for some people, but in your daily exercise there’s the chance to not only consume, but produce, the rainbows, the bear hunts, the people walking dogs in fancy dress. Otherwise look for ‘interactive’ options online – having a Netflix Watch Party with others, playing games on Houseparty, having chats online – I’m sure there’s many other options but like the rest of you, the brain is a little fuzzy!

So, if you’re letting your children have more time on their phones or tablets than usual – don’t panic – these are unusual times (and even at the best of times the evidence doesn’t support that it’s as negative as the media tells you it is). Make sure that you are at least within listening distance of the younger members of your family if they are on YouTube (and you know there’s YouTube Kids, right) as it doesn’t take many links to end up on an undesirable video! If they want to play computer games, check out Andy Robertson’s newly launched databaseto help guide you which are suitable (you don’t have to be the expert on everything, there’s lots of great experts doing the work for you online – use that community). Or maybe they want to learn code – an incredibly useful tool for their future…

We need support and time with our friends and family – get the board games out (it’s not about ‘taking time away from technology’, but about being busy with other things, so the technology is less a focus if you feel it’s being problematic). Take time for family dinners and conversation – maybe even more important if you’re scrunched up in the house… but in taking time to be together, although someone may look up something online, or take a photo/video, the phone or other device is not the sole focus. This is similar to most messages about moving away from a diet mindset, rather than focusing on ‘not eating chocolate’, focus on increasing the amount of water, eating the rainbow, and the impact that those choices makes upon your wellbeing as to whether you continue with the same choices… rather than focusing on not spending time on the screen, think about increasing some other aspects that may benefit.

As an adult, you’ve likely children in the family who are not old enough to make those choices for themselves, so you may be providing the steer. Rather than ‘don’t spend so much time on the phone/tablet’, be interested on what is being done on the device, and whether it’s something you can do together, or talk about. You know your child best, so you’ll know if their behaviour is changing, and whether it may be the device causing problems (or the content being engaged with). Maybe you will agree a ‘screentime budget’ for a day (which you may decide can be on top of schoolwork), and whether devices go down for mealtimes, and/or at night. Rather than assuming that any of these are magic bullets, maybe experiment…

It is important in all of these that the focus is on the positives – are they getting a balanced diet, are they talking to friends (mental health is taking a real hit with the pandemic), are they getting some fresh air (however limited it is at the moment) and exercise (we’ve seen this week PE With Joe appears to have gone down a storm), and – most importantly – are they getting enough sleep? Often the challenges that seem to come from the blame on ‘screentime’ is that children are not getting enough sleep – maybe they are on their phones/tablets too late at night – but I was like this with books – I had to put them down at dinnertime and  bedtime … though I’ll admit I still tried to read under the light from the hallway!

Within the current pandemic we all need to think about how we are consuming news (all my news is digitally consumed, but it’s the news that is the problem, rather than the technology that conveys that news to me). The first week or so of this, I felt frozen, flicking through the news, especially as over the last week it has become clear that I could be in New Zealand for quite some time, as medics say that I’m too high risk to fly at present, even if any flights were going. I’ve limited myself to one news site from New Zealand, and one from the UK, look at a few links shared by friends, and put a lot of effort to engaging with pages which focus on good news stories – as well as connecting with supportive friends. We need to keep ourselves sane too, but children have often said that they don’t want to come second to the phone, so we need to think about our own habits too …

There are many ways to improve our mental health in the current crisis – curating your feed so that you are following those who are sharing more positive stories, who are encouraging you that you are doing enough, you are doing what you can in these ‘unprecedented’ times, and looking for ways to be creative. We’ve seen all the initiatives being shared online, if your child wants to go on Tik Tok, do the dance challenges with them (as ever, most platforms are officially for those 13+, so these should officially be your accounts) and have some fun together. Some people are finding that they are developing a different ‘voice’ by being online, and see if you can allow yourself a bit of space to find that. If you’ve got the energy, take time to learn how to use critical thinking in the information that you engage with online – where’s the factual information coming from, and where’s the information we should be ignoring (it’s been interesting watching the platforms and the government and other global organisations seek to get across the information that they believe that we need).

We often question why children are spending so much time on their phones or other devices – but if we think about the capabilities of what our phones have – diaries, connections, information hub – and that the rest of the world feels out of control – I think this is even clearer. And if it feels like we are in the middle of Armageddon – what helps us get through it .. a few Tik Tok dances, a game online with friends, online chats … give ourselves a bit of a break whilst mixing things up a bit with other activities.

I’m certainly not an advocate for spending all your time online either … it’s about getting a balance, and not about seeing online as better or worse than face to face – they are different, and suitable for different things – and I think we’ll savour being able to see more of people face-to-face once we’re free from self-isolation. I wonder also if there’ll be more understanding for those like me, who has been in periods of self-isolation for chunks of the past 2.5 years with chemotherapy – without the benefit of everyone else wanting to be online or having online drinks sessions I could join! Thinking even more widely, there are others who don’t have the freedom that we have temporarily lost, and how can we better understand how fine the line is between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

So, you’re doing your best in a difficult situation, screentime is not necessarily the evil that the media would have you believe! Not all apps and communication platforms are created equal, but experiment with the different tools and see which works for you, rather than thinking there’s a magic bullet or perfect way to do things. It comes down to the individual child – no one size fits all – and you will be the first to notice behavioural changes in your child!

What advice would you give to your peers about how you have managed your child’s mental, physical and spiritual health in the time of the global pandemic? 

Dr Bex Lewis is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and the author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst, and is currently trying to concentrate enough whilst stranded in New Zealand where she had won a scholarship to write the second edition.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Media & Press Media - Text

[MEDIA] Talking about #digitalparenting and #screentime in @YCWmag

I’m featured in the latest edition of Youth and Childrenswork Magazine, talking about the limitation of a focus on limiting screentime:


[RESEARCH] Quoted in Government Report on Social Media, Screen Use, and Health for @CommonsSTC

In April 2018 I had evidence accepted by the Select Commons Committee, investigating social media/screen use and young people’s health.

Today, the government published it’s report on the Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health (PDF), and I have a small mention:

The report summary says (within the full press release):

Social media and screens have become ubiquitous in the lives of children. Figures produced by Ofcom indicated that 70% of 12–15 year olds have a profile on social media, while the OECD reported in 2015 that 94.8% of 15 year olds in the UK used social media sites before or after school. Social media has undoubtedly connected people around the world and provided unprecedented ways to communicate instantaneously. Yet concerns have been growing about its effects on our wellbeing, and particularly on the physical and mental health of children. With the Government set to legislate on Online Harms in the next parliamentary session, our Report considers:

  • whether the growing use of social media, and screens, among children is healthy or harmful;
  • the evidence base for such claims; and
  • whether any new measures or controls are required.

First and foremost, providing unambiguous answers to our questions was hindered by the limited quantity and quality of academic evidence available. Social media is a relatively new phenomenon and, consequently, there is not yet a well-established body of research in this area examining its effects on children. Similarly, research on screens has tended not to focus on newer devices like smartphones. We found that the majority of published research did not provide a clear indication of causation, but instead indicated a possible correlation between social media/screens and a particular health effect. There was even less focus in published research on exactly who was at risk and if some groups were potentially more vulnerable than others when using screens and social media. Given the Government’s intention to legislate in this area, we are surprised to find that it has not commissioned any new, substantive research to help inform its proposals. We recommend that, as a matter of urgency, the Government should commission research to identify who is at risk of experiencing harm online and on social media, and why, and the longer-term consequences of that exposure on children. We also call on social media companies to make anonymised high-level data available, for research purposes, to bona fide researchers so that a better understanding of social media’s effects on users can be established. The Government should consider what legislation is required to improve researchers’ access to this type of data.

Notwithstanding these limitations, the absence of good academic evidence is not, in itself, evidence that social media and screens have no effect on young people. The potential links between social media, screens and health is an area of concern for parents, carers, teachers and children alike. While we heard about a variety of instances where social media could be a force for good, we also received evidence about some of the potential negative impacts of social media on the health and emotional wellbeing of children. These ranged from detrimental effects on sleep patterns and body image through to cyberbullying, grooming and ‘sexting’. Generally, social media was not the root cause of the risk but helped to facilitate it, while also providing the opportunity for a large degree of amplification. This was particularly apparent in the case of the abuse of children online, via social media. It is imperative that the Government leads the way in ensuring that an effective partnership is in place, across civil society, technology companies, law enforcement agencies, the Government and non-governmental organisations, aimed at ending child sexual exploitation (CSE) and abuse online. We recommend that the Government commissions research to establish its scale and prevalence and then sets itself an ambitious target to halve reported online CSE in two years and all but eliminate it in four years.

Children must, as far as practically possible, be protected from harm when accessing and using social media sites. At present, however, there is a patchwork of regulation and legislation in place, resulting in a “standards lottery” that does little to ensure that children are as safe as possible when they go online, as they are offline. This principle—to protect children from harm when on social media sites—must be enshrined in legislation as social media companies having a ‘duty of care’ towards its users who are under 18. Social media companies must also be far more open and transparent regarding how they operate and particularly how they moderate, review and prioritise content.

To achieve this, the Government should introduce, through new primary legislation, a statutory code of practice for social media companies, to provide consistency on content reporting practices and moderation mechanisms. This should be accompanied by a requirement for social media companies to publish detailed Transparency Reports every six months. Furthermore, when content that is potentially illegal under UK law is reported to a social media company, it should have to review the content, take a decision on whether to remove, block or flag that item (if appropriate), and relay that decision to the individual/organisation reporting it within 24 hours, such as now occurs in Germany. We believe that Ofcom is well-placed to perform the duties of the regulator and recommend that the Government resources Ofcom accordingly.

Finally, the digital literacy and resilience of children, as well as their teachers and parents, must be improved to help safeguard children from risks and harms when using social media. PSHE education must be made mandatory by the Government for primary and secondary school pupils and should deliver an age-appropriate understanding of, and resilience towards, the harms and benefits of the digital world.

I was contacted by BBC Tees to comment on this report, but unfortunately was involved in hospital appointments.

Media & Press Media - Audio

[MEDIA] Talking about new @Ofcom Report with @BBC_Cumbria

Ofcom today have released their latest Children and parents: media use and attitudes report, and I’ve just been speaking to Emma Borthwick on BBC Radio Cumbria about that:

Key findings

  • TV sets and tablets dominate device use, but time spent watching TV on a TV set (broadcast or on demand) is decreasing
  • The viewing landscape is complex, with half of 5-15s watching OTT television services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Now TV
  • YouTube is becoming the viewing platform of choice, with rising popularity particularly among 8-11s. Within this, vloggers are an increasingly important source of content and creativity
  • Online gaming is increasingly popular; three-quarters of 5-15s who play games do so online
  • Social media can bring a combination of social pressures and positive influences
  • TV and social media are important sources of news, but many have concerns over the accuracy and trustworthiness of news on social media
  • A majority of online 12-15s think critically about websites they visit, but only a third correctly understand search engine advertising
  • Children are still being exposed to unwanted experiences online, but almost all recall being taught how to use the internet safely
  • There has been an increase in parents of 12-15s and of 12-15s themselves saying that controlling screen time has become harder; however most 12-15s consider they have a struck a good balance between this and doing other things
  • Parental concerns about the internet are rising, although parents are, in some areas, becoming less likely to moderate their child’s activities

The press release focused on why children spend time online.

A few notes

My scribbles in relation to the press release:

  • 5-15 is a very large age range, expect a lot of difference within them, especially with 13 the legal age for having a social media account.
  • There are so many moral panics about screentime – it’s not uncontrollable, need to bring in family policies, importance of conversation, and look at screen use within the bigger picture of what else the child is doing.
  • We could say that TV is passive, and online is interactive, but we can clearly see that TV ‘appointment viewing’ is family time (and dual screening is possible – especially with wider family/friends).
  • It’s about screen CONTENT over time – there’s an option to mix and match – e.g. ‘you’ve seen that football shot, shall we now go and have a go at it’. It’s not about demonising the screen, but letting it find a healthy place – never about being entirely unboundaried – think about creating ‘healthy habits’.
  • Content children are looking at on YouTube = how to (top thing for YT for all users), celebrities (as always has been), and unboxing (unique – curious, but if you can’t afford one, can enjoy vicariously?).
  • Note that quality content is not being made for online platforms, and this is being encouraged.
  • ULTIMATELY it’s about BALANCING screen in with other aspects of life, and focus on CONTENT not quantity.
  • Parents need to know what their children are engaging with (content wise), and think about what is their child gaining from engagement online.
  • What works for one child (even within same age group) may not work for another, as children are individuals – some children can take it or leave it, some seem to be ‘addicted’ (a medical term, so care with use), in which case they need stronger boundaries – but preferably without demonising the screen = APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES.
  • Within that = mix of ‘individualistic’ behaviour, and group activities – e.g. learning to share, choose something between them, but otherwise, why not enjoy engaging with something they really like.

Relevant Articles

A few recent articles that are relevant, especially in the question of whether screentime is ‘bad’.

Screen time no more harmful to teenage mental health than eating potatoes, study shows:

Activities including getting enough sleep and eating breakfast had much stronger impacts on mental health. Smoking cannabis was also 2.7 times more detrimental than screen time, while being bullied was 4.3 times more harmful.

Amy Orban:

“Of the three datasets we analysed for this study, we found over 600 million possible ways to analyse the data. We calculated a large sample of these and found that – if you wanted – you could come up with a large range of positive or negative associations between technology and wellbeing, or no effect at all.”

Digital detoxes are a solution looking for a problem

Most studies also rely on self-reported estimates of technology use, which often don’t reflect reality. Studies that rely on people self-reporting may get inaccurate information. Interestingly, when time in front of a screen is measured automatically by an application or device, depression and anxiety severity aren’t associated with total smartphone usage.

Research often tends to treat all technology use as equal. This assumption overlooks the fact that we have a different experience with each kind of technology we use. For example, mindlessly scrolling Instagram is very different to chatting on WhatsApp, or using a fitness tracker.

Media & Press Media - Audio

[MEDIA] Talking #Screentime on @bbc5Live with @GeoffLloyd, @Jo_Frost and @sophiemccartney

So, it was a long day yesterday, with an interview before 8am with Premier Radio, another with Hits Radio whilst attending my ‘Where Now?’ course at Maggies, another with BBC London Drivetime, and finally this just after 11pm with BBC 5 Live:

I was in conversation with Jo Frost (SuperNanny – who had earlier retweeted this) and Sophie McCartney (which Google gives me her Ed Sheeran parody) and presenter Geoff Lloyd (whose Twitter account amuses me with his heading with thousands of unread emails).

Full programme here.