In last week’s blog, we discussed the complex issue of kids and screen time. It’s something we think about a lot as a family and kid’s focussed marketing and research agency.
As researchers, we help our clients create some of the best kid’s content out there, and as parents, uncles, aunts, and siblings to a younger generation, we have a vested interest and ethical responsibility in making sure that those screens aren’t negatively impacting kids.
And while it would be nice if the world fell into simple categorisations like screens=bad, the reality of kids’ relationships with their devices is much more complex. To help simplify it, we’ve used a framework first posited in 2019 by Dr Taren Sanders (who is a research fellow at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University) alongside a team of researchers.
Their research found that screen time had an impact on a range of health, psychological, and educational outcomes, but that there was substantial variation based on the type of screen time. It’s our opinion that policy makers and educators (and by extension, researchers and marketers) should take this into consideration when thinking about benefits and harms.
So without further ado, the 5 types of screen time, from the best to the worst:
eg) Homework on electronic devices
In Sander’s study educational screen time was associated with positive effects on children’s persistence and educational outcomes. This kind of screen time also had no significant effects on psychological or health outcomes.
eg) Video games.
Interactive screen time was linked to positive educational outcomes.
eg) Social media
Unsurprisingly, there were some links between higher social screen time and poorer health-related quality of life, higher reactivity, and worse socio-emotional outcomes for the prosocial, emotional, and conduct subscales that Sander’s tested in her study.
This was a catch-all category for everything that didn’t fit into one of the other four.
This kind of screen time didn’t have much of a link with most of the fields tested, though it was linked to negative outcomes in prosocial behaviour and peer interaction.
Amongst all the types tested, passive screen time seems like it’s got the most to answer for; Sander’s study associated it with worse psychological outcomes, poorer health outcomes, and lower educational outcomes.
But even passive screen time is more complicated than good/bad. There are excellent examples of children’s programming that encourage imaginative play, like the Australian sensation Bluey, and others that reinforce basic literacy and numeracy skills, like Sesame Street.
It’s an understandable impulse to make sure that kids are given as many tools and resources as possible to grow and learn, but many kids today live very scheduled, busy lives, and there is also an argument that not all screen time needs to be “nutritious”—and that there is space for fun, lightweight programming as an occasional cheeky treat.
The main caveat for all screen time is that if it adds to and complements the real world experiences that are so key to kids development, is probably OK. If it’s replacing those activities (ie. kids are only watching videos of outdoor play and not playing themselves) it’s probably not.
From a content design perspective, based on the research above and other studies in the field, it boils down to this: the more adaptive and interactive a screen is, the more easily it can become a valuable tool. In the words of child psychology expert Kathy Hirsh Pasek “We must create screens that are prompts for social engagement, not partners that substitute for social engagement.”