Not all "screen time" is created equal

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/12/20/screens-contain-multitudes.html

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some people play group games with far-flung friends as a social, networked activity, integrating small talk about their troubles and supporting each other. Others just scream obscenities at strangers over team-speak while shooting at other.

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I’m not a developmental neurologist (sorry to anyone who had that impression), but it just bums me the hell out and scares me more than a little when I see a group of kids sitting together, each of them staring at their own individual screen and not interacting with one another at all, or when I see a kid in a stroller with an ipad in front of her face oblivious to every single thing around her.

It’s all well and good to avoid panicking about technology, but I don’t think any of us should forget for a moment that these devices and apps are designed by people much, much smarter than us about trapping a kid’s attention in a feedback loop.

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However they’re measuring screen time, the people with the most power in Silicon Valley aren’t letting their own kids spend too much time using the products and services they sell.

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Social virtual worlds that center around user-created content [Second Life and heck even Roblox] are wonderful. The debate is indeed really superficial in mainstream media. Screen time needs to be divided by active imaginative vs passively tapering over boredom. Case in point in my documentary “Our Digital Selves” which incidentally features Tom Boellstorff from UCI folks who are ability-diverse talk about their embodiment in Second Life, High Fidelity and Sansar and Shyla says [to lots of laughter and applause in a recent festival screening]: " One therapist told me that if I am in SL any time longer I am going to become part of the screen generation. SCREEN GENERATION? WTH ? If I can afford to go to a restaurant on a non-pain day I will engage with the person there and not stare at a screen!"

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This isn’t suprising. We’re still regularly seeing studies that indicate games, certain types of music and movies cause violence or alter kids brains. If Aristotle we’re still around we’d be seeing the same for books.

Usually when you see this sort of inconsistency, or this wide a variety of claimed effects. It’s a good indication that effects are so mild as to not matter, or that there’s really nothing going on.

Limiting kids media consumption (and that’s very much what this screen time thing is about however it’s framed). Has never really sat well with me. I can very much remember growing up. The kids who weren’t allowed to watch certain things, play certain games, read certain books etc. Or who were restricted from things like TV, and video games in general. Were often pretty well isolated from their peers, had difficulty making friends or engaging with people at the appropriate level. Made worse because the things they were allowed to consume were often well below their age level, or deeply unpopular with their own age group. Which seems to lead to a lot of deeply immature kids, with even more trouble connecting.

And all of those kids caught hell in terms of bullying. For the kids who were a little weird or awkward anyway. It made things immeasurably worse.

And I can still see the same thing happening with the kids around me today. Perhaps more so as helicopter parenting and breeding perfect superhumans with many dietary restrictions has become more common. Along with the agressive social signalling and public judgement on parents that goes along with it. I’m pretty convinced kids these days are emotionally fucked. But it’s their parents not the tablets and apps doing it.

Kids brains didn’t melt from tv, movies, radio, wind up toys, negro music, books, video games, dancing, and so forth. And we’ve seen the exact same arguements, over reactions and “evidence” on those subjects. And some times still do.

I’ve almost never seen this. Not with younger children anyway. Teens and preteens maybe.

The thing is these kids typically are interacting. Either with each other or the broader world. Using the phones. If you look more carefully they’re talking to each other, showing each other things, discussing the things they’re doing that the others aren’t.

And a lot of the time they’re texting each other directly. So that adults and authority figures can’t over hear.

It’s not very much different than a bunch of kids in a pile reading different things, giggling and passing notes. Which is a thing that happens, a thing I did a lot of as a kid, and I doubt anyone would describe it as creepy or disappointing.

They’re also not letting their kids get vaccinated. I dunno that we should model childcare on these people.

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If senior managers in the pharma industry weren’t vaccinating their own kids, you’d have a point. There are a lot more Silicon Valley techies limiting or banning screen time for their kids than there are anti-vaxxer SV techies.

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I don’t agree that “media” and screen time on phones and tablets are interchangeable concepts. As I got at above, these devices and apps are designed to suck users into a feedback loop and shut out the outside world. This is a non-scientific example, but does anyone really dispute that a 10 year old who gets absorbed reading a Harry Potter book for three hours feels different and has been doing different things with their brain than a 10 year old who spends three hours clicking through 2 minute long YouTube videos?

I think a group of teens and preteens sitting together, all staring at their individual screens and not interacting with one another, is also depressing. An incredible amount of development is still occurring (or not?) in these kids.

As a premise, I don’t agree that “kids these days are emotionally fucked,” but I would point out that it’s parents who are buying these devices for the kids, allowing the excessive use, and using them as an opiate. It’s not a kid’s fault that they have an ipad stuck in front of their face instead of learning to converse with the world around them, it’s most definitely the parents’.

I’m just not sure (and I don’t believe anyone is) that a young person “interacting” with someone they can’t see in Snapchat or IG or whatever other app they’re using is fungible with “interacting” with someone you can see in front of you, picking up on non-verbal cues, and speaking in real-time with your actual voice. Given how incredibly important direct interaction is with young children in their development of language and emotion, I am pretty skeptical that cutting out big chunks of first-hand interaction from young people is without consequences.

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See last I checked vaccination avoidance was clustered in some of the same same areas as the tech business. With one of the worst “hot spots” for vaccine rates being in and around silicon valley itself. Most studies finger affluent urban whites as the core of anti-vaxx. And I’ve seen plenty of coverage fingering techies as less likely to vaccination.

Point being these people aren’t insulated from social trends. And they aren’t necessarily any better informed even on their own field than anyone else.

The screen time scare isn’t about limiting use of certain aps or social media. It’s about limiting use of particular devices and isn’t even limited just to phones and tablets. But rolls in TV’s, video game systems, even reading on a screen.

If Mark Zuckerberg has banned his kids from ever using Facebook maybe there’s something there. But wealthy white folks living in a bubble culture jumping on a general trend of don’t let your kids touch electronics is not that.

Then why limit screen time rather than limiting those specific aps. Which younger children are in general not using?

The parents I know who limit “screen time” are also limiting their kids access to televisions, video games, all of that.

While the impact in kids lives from social media and free to play games is a valid concern. Just as it’s a valid concern for all age groups. It’s pretty unlikely to be a brain altering sort of problem. And if this were the primary concern why keep your kids from watching TV? And why study the impact of using the devices?

Sure. But that doesn’t mean the YouTube binge is harmful, it also doesn’t mean that screwing around is any different than the sort of screwing around you did as a kid.

Yeah but the thing is they are. You ever spoken to these kids? Or god forbid sat there and picked around with your phone right along with them? Like I said their sharing things with each other, texting the people in their physical presence. Some of them are reading (often surprising things I have a cousin who was very big on Jezabelle at 14), watching TV shows, trolling through YouTube the same way you do. Sharing songs, videos and news with each other.

And the people who they can’t see are typically people they know IRL. Kids have a much, much different relationship with social media than we so. It’s often quite a bit less depressing than what we are doing right now. In some ways it’s a hell of a lot savvier.

Your arguement of the people they interact with not being in their presence is literally the arguement used against the telephone when it first became common.

I get it. It makes you uncomfortable. Often that’s a result of not understanding what’s genuinely going on. Or not being able to see what these kids are doing, a lack of control over kids. I find the latter creepier than you find the mythical flock of silent screen drones.

I’ve yet to see anything, about any of the things that are rotting our brains. For adults or children. That comes up with compelling evidence for physical changes in development. And there’s an awful lot of brain development going on straight into our 20’s.

I’m much more concerned about the social development aspect, that’s very real. But I am pretty disturbed by, and have actually witnessed and experienced the social development issues that come from restricting kids in this way. You are almost never helping kids by cutting them off from their peers and society at large. And you can’t know exactly what they’re up to all the time.

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We might have different experience with what we’re seeing if you don’t see examples of really young kids scrolling endlessly through YouTube videos, or middle school & junior high kids using things like Snapchat.

I’m not sure why that would be a given.

But it’s a zero-sum game. Hours spent binging YouTube or on other apps are hours not spent doing something else. And when that something else being replaced is direct, in-person interaction with peers and the world around them, I think that it’s unlikely to be without negative consequences.

I am not drawing any line between these two areas. They are not distinct.

Why do you think that? This is a non-rhetorical question, by the way, because much of your response has been dismissing others’ concern over such things (while also suggesting that others’ concerns come from a place of “not understanding what’s genuinely going on,” but we’ll leave that be), so why do you think things like social media and free to play games are a valid concern? (ETA: I suspect the answer would demonstrate that we don’t actually disagree as much as it may seem about what the underlying concerns actually are for kids and their development)

Yes I’m sure toddlers and 6 year olds are doing that and snap chatting it up. Instead of using the Peppa pig app to watch Peppa pig and play educational games. Provided they have the motor skills and understanding to make even that work.

The most I’ve seen kids do in this age group is watch shit like clips from nature shows. While they excitedly talk to some one they are with about the animals. And in large part the younger ones have needed someone (like me) to actually pull up those videos since they lack the understanding of how more complex computers work.

Slightly older and they tend to be developing base literacy in how websites and full computers work, which is important. And while YouTube might not be great at showing them what they’re looking for (which tends to breed disinterest), I don’t see any problem with kids giggling at stupid ass videos for a while. Kids and people have always done that kind of thing. There was even a long running television show for that.

This argument boils down to the same concern about television, then video games. That “zoning out” in front of something non-interactive, an judged as not valuable to the concerned. Will do something awful to children. Neither of those concerns have panned out. None of those generations of kids turned out to be uniquely warped. None of the reasearch indicating physical changes or reasons to be worried ended up being valid (even though we’re till repeating that back and forth).

Didn’t say it was a given. Said the evidence for. And the mix of for and against. Looks identical to previous concerns for a whole host of technolgies and behaviors dating back a century. None of those things ruined kids, none of the proposed physical developmental changes ended up existing.

So I see no reason to assume this is anymore valid.

We got a lot a hours to deal with in life. And again. These things are not valueless simply because you don’t personally see or notice the value.

Not every moment of a child’s life need to be filled with what are currently, momentarily, considered the most important or socially acceptable things.

Kids need space to goof off, experiment. They need to engage with the general culture and their interests even if you don’t get it. Even if it’s stupid. Kids need freedom just as much as anyone.

I’ll repeat myself again .

This is word for word. The arguement against the telephone and how it was going to destroy young people/society. We had the same resarch screaming oh no about that. And in a century the telephone has yet to horribly warp any children or unravel society at the seems.

It’s also very close to Aristotles arguement against writing and books. That with out memorizing and reciting information directly face to face. Young people would lose the ability to think and interact with others.

Including complaints about desolute young people zoning out in front of valueless, boring books instead of engaging with the world.

And writing has been around for a pretty long time.

For more repetition. If you watch those kids carefully. Or actually engage with them on their own terms. They are most often directly engaging with people in their actual presence. Face to face. While they are doing these things in groups.

They’re just involving the screens in it.

They very much are. Physical developmental issues often lead to social development issues. And some of our most common developmental issues, like autism, seem to primarily be about an inability or difference in base ability to socialise.

But a person with normal developmental markers. Or even advanced ones. Can still have difficulty with social development, social skills, and base interaction. Like me. And I know for a fact many people here, because it comes up a lot.

Have you seen the news? Free to okay games use gambling mechanics and tricks to extract money from people, often preying on those prone to compulsive gabling. Or kids too young to understand money, and consequences.

And social media has had profound political and social consequences in terms of spreading misinformation and making it more difficult for adults to guage the accuracy of information.

But these concerns have nothing to do with development, kids social skills or quality of life. They aren’t unique to young people. And are often more of an issue for adults than for kids. Studies show younger people are much less credulous when it comes to what’s posted on social media. And much better at guaging the accuracy of information online.

And of course the privacy and exploitive concerns of both.

This is a fundamentally different issue than the one under discussion. It’s more to do with regulation, public information. And the rolls these things play in society and our ecconomy.

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We’ll have to agree to disagree about whether social media and apps on phones and tablets are essentially the same thing as video games and television and talking on the telephone. I think we make a serious mistake when we think that every new technology or trend is something unique and unprecedented, and I think we make an equally serious mistake when we presume that no new technology or trend can be unique or unprecedented and insist that it’s interchangeable with something else. Nothing is new, until it is.

Agreed, which is why I think their attention being sucked into apps specifically designed to keep then in a feedback loop is not good.

In other words, there is significant overlap between the two issues. My friend, I think we’ve reached the point in the conversation where we’re straining to disagree about things.

I fundamentally disagree with you about that, and I don’t think anyone knows the actual long-term affect of these technologies on development or socialization, so it’s wrong to declare them the worst thing in the world and it’s wrong to declare them just telephone 2.0.

Whatever the cognitive effect of lotsa sceentime may (or may not) be on developing minds, I think we can all agree that any kid on a device is ipso facto a kid who is not engaging in athletic activity outside – and that has an impact. Kids are way more sedentary now than they have ever been in the past, and that certainly has deleterious effects upon both their physical and mental health. Screens aren’t the only reason, but they certainly aren’t the solution either (pokeman go notwithstanding!)

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I’m disputing that that’s all kids are using these for. And that kids at all ages are using social media.

Not equating the different activities people use devices for.

What I’m saying here is that the arguement you are presenting is the same as the arguement used against television, and video games. And a thousand other things. Every new technolgy or fad. And in the thousands of years we’ve been hearing that. It has never proved true.

Fine, that’s not good for anyone adults or children, because it’s exploitative. And money driven. But it isn’t rotting people’s brains. And it does not soully define how these devices are used, even by children.

That is not what screen time means. That is not the only thing being limited.

The screen time thing includes television. Movies. Engaging with music through these devices. Engaging directly with other people through these devices not using such apps. Games, reading on them. And so forth.

These are the things people are limiting, base access and use of devices we all use for a thousand different things. Not the particular behaviors or uses that are problematic for everyone.

Noone is limiting screen time because they worry their kids will bully other kids, or engage in Nigerian fishing scams. Because of negative things these can be used for. They’re limiting their kids time with TVs and computers because of nebulous fears that any use will harm them in some inherent way.

I’ve seen kids harmed by that kind of restriction. Some times physically, by other children. And I firmly believe that the screen time obsession is doing more harm than good.

If you completely ignore the paragraph following that. Where in I pointed out that people who have no physical developmental problems frequently have social developmental problems. Divorced from any physical causes.

I think we’ve reached the point in the conversation where you’re straining to avoid my point.

Then you’re disputing something I never argued, and we don’t disagree about anything meaningful on that point.

I’m not sure how one would quantify “rotting,” but perhaps “affecting” might be a more honest way of framing the discussion. I think kids often get too much screen time on their phones and tablets, and many (not all, of course) of the things they are doing with that time are significantly less beneficial (if not harmful) to their social development and happiness compared to doing things that aren’t silently staring at a screen.

In any event, I think we’ve passed the point where this conversation is productive and we’re both taking things personally that aren’t personal, so I’ll say goodbye & take care.

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That seems like a fairly straightforward application of “never get high on your own supply”; as adapted for people who deal in ‘user engagement’.

If you do 'attention economy’s stuff and would let your kid near your product you are probably a failure either as an employee or as a parent.

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I’d be very much surprised if Zuckerberg will let his kids anywhere near a consumer-grade Facebook or Instagram account before age 16, if only to prove he didn’t raise no dumb f*cks. His rules surrounding his kids’ digital devices and services will likely be the same as any other aware tech exec’s (e.g. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs).

People in these positions in SV understand that the future still belongs to those who can do things like: do a close reading of an entire fiction or non-fiction book; write a long essay in proper English; have the self-discipline and focus to complete a difficult task that isn’t fun; be a creator/maker as well as a consumer; think critically about how one spends one’s money; interact face-to-face with peers and elders; and be aware of the value of discretion.

These are the skills and habits that, worthy as they are in and of themselves, are also needed to get into Stanford or Harvard or MIT, to network for one’s career and social life, and to rise beyond middle management. Like it or not, this is what success looks like in the late-stage capitalist America created in part by these tech executives.

These same people understand* that the products and services they sell, whether by design or accident, often tend to work against those goals – even when they confer other benefits. That understanding is reflected in the rules they have at home for their kids and the choice of “old-fashioned” K-12 schools where they send them.

[* based on their own “dark pattern” business practises and – in contrast to anti-vaxxer woo – reputable academic studies about technology’s effects on cognition and socialisation in developing minds]

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Or not.

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A big part of what I’m arguing is that all these technologies we fear render children unable to do these things, won’t. Its never worked out that way. And the lists of things we’ve fretted over in this way is long, long, long.

Super long. Incredibly long.

And the claimed effects never really materialize. Each new generation applies them to the generation that follows. And each new technology. Or fad. Or moral wrong is blamed for creating this moral degradation.

These takes on this stuff are effectively moral judgement. You have determined that certain activities or social dynamics are valueless or less valuable than others. And you worry what their doing to children and pass judgement.

But just to take one example. These tech giants are exactly the kids who adults at the time worries wouldn’t be able to " close-read an entire book; write a long essay in proper English; have self-discipline and focus to complete a task that isn’t fun; be a creator/maker as well as a consumer; think critically about spending one’s money; interact face-to-face with peers and elders; and be aware of the value of discretion"

Because they were wasting too much time on their computers. And look how that turned out.

If Zuckerberg keeps his kids off Facebook it’ll be because he knows just how scum baggy and dangerous his company has become. More likely they’ll end up with the same sort of Facebook account he likely has, one with all the fucked up stripped out. Seldom used, except for PR purposes.

So while these fears have never materialized, in the long history of people telling us they will. What does have a pretty obvious impact on kids ability or opportunity to interact with others. Is barring them or restricting them from doing so. Preventing kids from watching particular TV shows, engaging in particular behaviors, engaging in culture absolutely does that. Without pretty good reasons to, like with crack. Makes it harder for that kid to engage with his peers. Can’t talk about the most popular TV shows, if you can’t watch em. Can’t engage with people on television at all if you can’t watch it. If kids are using texting rather than passing notes, well can’t participate in that.

And this can take on rather extreme formats. Had a friend in middle school who was forever barred from visiting my house after my mom let us watch a PG movie. He was 12, and only allowed G. He had a great deal of difficulty making friends, and was bullied over that explicitly. He never really had much to talk with the other kids about. And often wasn’t allowed, or at all familiar with the things the other kids were doing. When he did make a friend (like me) he typically wasn’t able to interact with that friend anywhere but school or at his own house. It becomes difficult to maintain friendships and contact whe the response to “want to sleep over this weekend” is “my mom says I can’t cause you get too much screen time”.

So all this fear. Really classic examples of moral panics. Is causing people to impose he exact thing they’re fearing on their children. Often pretty directly.

Like I said I’ve seen this actually happen. I’m watching it happen to kids in my family right now.

MMMMMMM

Dig those sweet, sweet crisis dots.

Nearly every map I’ve seen on this subject. Any study of vaccination rates. Vaccine denial driven outbreaks. Every report of where its happening. Has a big ole chunk of the densest whatever’s being tracked right over Norther California and the Pacific Northwest. Particularly near the cities.

Along with more isolated problem sites in places like NYC, Austin, and so forth.

And yeah some state wide issues in the Midwest, bits of the South.

But your link is based on “research” by a consumer polling and market research firm.

And while there has been scattered research, and a lot of op eds. About the prevalence of anti-vaxx views on the right, in rural areas, and among the working class. For the most part they don’t mesh too well with the actual details on where vaccine refusal is actually happening, and where people are genuinely getting sick.

This is mostly a phenomenon of upper middle class on up, whites, and the impacts are clustered heavily in cities. Often times most heavily in cities with big tech businesses.

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I wasn’t aware all those academic studies I linked to above were about morality.

Read the bios of people like Zuckerberg, Brin, Page, Bezos, Spiegel, Musk, Kalanick and the rest, especially the parts about their early years and education and upbringing and family backgrounds. Most of them got into highly competitive universities, and coding skills alone don’t get you there. Their parents made sure that, as immersed as they were in computers, they also had the skills I listed. I’m willing to bet that TV time and video game time was very limited if not banned in those households.

At the time these tech founders were young, computers and the on-line world were still esoteric geek hobbies that were more about creating than consuming. Parents with kids like that generally thought they were academically enriching activities (or were too bemused to think otherwise, which allowed room for a lot of non-console gaming).

Not that it matters. At this point, you seem set on these “screen time” concerns (in the broader sense of concerns about tech and apps and services) being nothing more than a mere “moral panic” like those surrounding jazz music or TV. I have to agree with @DrNobelDynamite that further debate with you here won’t be productive. Have a good evening.