You know the drill: no more desserts, go to the gym, reduce screen time for your kids…Wait, What? Less screen time? Will my kid survive? Do I really need to limit my child’s screen time anyway?
There is abundant research on the topic that supports premises from “it’s a brave new world; get over it,” to “it’s a brave new world; proceed with caution.” When University of Virginia Professor and Cognitive Scientist, Dan Willingham, met with faculty at The Providence Country Day School, he outlined three key questions whose answers help us understand the effects of screen time on adolescent development and productivity.
- Does exposure to digital technology shorten kids’ attention span and are kids’ attention spans shorter than they use to be?
- Do kids have to multitask—is it the only way they can function?
- Why are kids so frantic about their phones?
One of the challenges is that it takes a long time to collect data since effects might be the results of years of practice. This, coupled with the accelerated pace of technological development, means we are evaluating a moving target and can only hypothesize based on what we know now.
Studies show that content matters. Teens tend to shift their attention rapidly between music, texting, and what’s on their computer. Attention is at the center of cognitive ability and it appears that attention itself, not just attention span is an essential piece of the puzzle. With so many demands on our attention and so many options to choose from, we are constantly evaluating what deserves our attention. Occasional boredom used to be normal. Nowadays, the threshold for boredom is exceptionally low; there is always another online diversion and it is easy to switch from one to another.
Young people are better at multitasking than adults. Our working memory peaks at about age 22. But know this: multitasking always carries a cost. Individuals who practice a high level of multitasking exhibit worse attentional control. The fact of the matter is that 95% of people who believe they are multitasking are actually switching rapidly between attentional demands, rather than paying attention to multiple things at the same time. Having the TV on when you’re “multitasking” is never good. Music, on the other hand, has been proven to be either helpful or have no effect, and the type of music played doesn’t seem to make any difference. All this is to say that kids don’t have to “multitask,” and they will pay better attention if they focus on one thing at a time.
Kids text about two hours a day. We are wired to seek new information and your child’s phone is the hub for new information. Text messages are a social lifeline and they are “perishable.” Texts lose 25% of their value in 10 minutes and 50% of their value in five hours. So, ignoring a phone costs attention as your child starts to wonder what he/she is missing and then starts to get anxious that he/she is missing something important, and then…you get the idea.
Only you can decide what makes sense for your teen and your family. But research has given us enough information to make informed decisions. If your family dynamic begs for some realignment this year, rest assured you will not be doing permanent damage to your teen if you limit screen time. Don’t rely on self-control though—you will need to offer up something more worthy of your kids’ attention and require that everyone participate in the experiment.