find the right balance

Considered by some to be responsible for many evils, screens are nevertheless effective learning and development devices for children. What are the real risks? What are the problems? Youmatter delves into this complex relationship between childhood and the use of screens.

In 1895, the Lumière brothers offered the first free projection on the big screen. Man’s passion for the representation, the image, the projection, which will lead to the spread of a true canvas culture.

At first reserved for a very limited number of households – there were only 3,794 television sets in 1950 – screens have now been deployed in all social spheres, on all scales and for all purposes.

Smartphones, tablets, televisions, game consoles, computers, from an early age individuals are subject to the ubiquity of screens. In 2021, a French household has more than 5 screens on average. So what consequences might this exposure to screens have on young people? Is it more negative or more positive? And how do you find the right balance? We try to see more clearly.

Overexposure to screens, a problem for children?

Too much exposure to screens can be associated with certain risks for young people, and especially for children. The first risk of these risks, both physical and psychological, is a sedentary lifestyle.

Any time in front of screens is sedentary time, and wasted time for other developmental activities – sports, cultural excursions, social contacts… But scientific literature has long shown that a sedentary lifestyle in childhood and adolescence is a factor that favors overweight and obesity, metabolic or joint problems. According to the National Food Safety Agency (ANSES), the sedentary lifestyle caused by the prolonged use of screens in particular poses a real health risk to children in France. 49% of young people aged 11 to 17 would be at high risk, i.e. more than 4.30 daily screen time and/or less than 20 minutes of physical activity per day”.

Prolonged use of screens can also have consequences for young people’s eye health and vision: myopia, binocular vision disorders, etc. It can also have negative consequences for sleep, from childhood to adolescence. The use of media, regardless of the media, whether it is just before going to bed, but also daily use >2 hours after school on each media or 4 hours in total, leads to a significante sleep latency ≥ 60 min and sleep deficit ≥ 2 hours “, states the High Council for Public Health.

The prolonged use of screens will also be associated with certain psychological problems. For example, a study has shown that screen time of more than 2-3 hours per day is associated with poorer quality of life and mental health in young people. Other studies link depression to screen time. Several reasons could explain these links:

  • a displacement phenomenon (screen time prevents healthier activities, such as social contacts),
  • a phenomenon of social comparison (screens expose young people to social stereotypes that can affect self-esteem)
  • or a phenomenon of amplification (the use of screens tends to expose users to content that amplifies their discomfort, especially due to algorithms)
  • but also: disruption of sleep cycles, chronic fatigue related to screen light, etc.

It is also possible that the relationship goes in the other direction, i.e. that children in an illness situation tend to use screens more often. In any case, and although some studies estimate that the mental health risk of using screens is low, it cannot be completely ruled out. Like any activity, excessive screen use can therefore have negative physical and psychological consequences.

From correlation to causation

However, there is nothing in the scientific literature to suggest that screens are a major danger to young people, and certain fears that exist in the public space seem more or less unfounded. If certain media discourses have contributed to obscuring the proper understanding of such a complex subject and have deliberately or clumsily fueled fears about the alleged harmful consequences of screens for children’s health and development, it is advisable to remain nuanced.

For example: many voices have warned about the consequences of violent video games on young players. In 2018, the former president of the United States, Donald Trump, tried to blame the video game industry for the massacre in Parkland (Florida). The violence shown on screen, especially in the war game call of dutywould have motivated the killer to act.

However, there is currently no consensus in the scientific community on this issue. No study can definitively establish a causal relationship between a violent video game and aggressive behavior. Some kids who play violent video games have brutal behavior, that’s a correlation that can be made. But that doesn’t mean the video game is responsible for this violence.

In its analysis of scientific data on the effects of exposure of children and adolescents to screens, the Haut Conseil de la Santé Publique (HCSP) emphasizes different conclusions on the subject: “Although a majority of researchers have argued for such an association (violent and aggressive video games)others argue that the existing evidence was flawed in many respectsthe report reads, more than the violence of the games, the interplay between that violence and the competition they establish would be a predictor of young players’ aggressiveness”.

As for cognitive development, scientific consensus is also difficult to establish. Contrary to what we have heard a lot in the media, there is no evidence to show that the use of screens is associated with a decrease in IQ or intelligence or motor skills in children. HCSP points out, for example, that “ some studies observe negative effects on language acquisition, while others note improvements in learning“. Or that scholarly work distinguishes between different types of screen use, such as ” does not seem to have the same effect on motor and cognitive development in young children“. Some studies show that using screens or video games can be beneficial for some learning, others that too much screen can be negative.

Children’s exposure to screens is, ultimatelymust be investigated on a case-by-case basis, both on the consequences and on the type of screen used (television; computer; console).

The screen is not the only factor

Another focal point in the media space relates in particular to the impact of screens on school results. Evocative and often vague titles simplify and obscure the exact reasons for the differences between young students. If the harmful effects of overexposure to screens remain undeniable, the main problem ultimately lies not so much in the duration of the exposure as in the use of the screens made of it.

Numerous studies, referenced by the HCSP, reveal that the correlation between screen time and children’s academic results highlights that the most vulnerable children are children who spend a lot of time on the Internet and social networks without a targeted goal in relation to their school performance. “. On the other hand, young students who use the Internet and screens as part of their studies will have better academic results overall.

Lower school results cannot therefore be attributed solely to screens. The family environment, lifestyle, gender, social class, age etc. are all vulnerability factors for the youngest.

Abuse can increase harmful behavior for the most vulnerable people, but the screen itself is not inherently bad. It is rather a matter of developing a reasoned use of screens.

A need for support

However, it is at this point that many parents are helpless. The lack of awareness and support for parents facing the ubiquity of screens is a point that Alexandra Christides, Director General of the National Federation of Schools for Parents and Educators (Fnepe) raised in an article, the main reason parents consult ECEs [Écoles des parents et des éducateurs ] is no longer academic success today, but the screen consumption of teenagers and increasingly of children, especially under 3 years. “.

Scientific literature shows that supervision in the use of screens is essential in the home for children’s development. But this supervision varies considerably according to the families, their social environment and their situation.

As the HCSP reminds us, “the consumption of screens is an excellent translator of the socialization practiced by and in the various family configurations”. We know that families in the most socio-economic difficulties find it more difficult to monitor their children’s digital practices for reasons as much related to financial and practical difficulties as lack of information on the subject. However, this association between children’s family environment and screen use is still partially investigated due to the number of factors that need to be considered.

According to the conclusions of the HCSP, good screen and digital practices must become one of the governments’ biggest concerns. In particular, this will involve a better understanding of uses inside and outside the home and the creation of a relationship of trust between parent and child, not by a total ban on screens and digital technology, but by healthy use and diversity of these different media.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema from Unsplash.

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