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Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence not opinion

by on 2017/01/13

Children’s use of technology, from iPads to playstations, television and internet exposure, is frequently discussed in the media.  Here at Research the Headlines we have discussed several examples of such media coverage – an example from September 2015 is reblogged below.  It was very welcoming then, to see a letter published in the Guardian last Friday signed by a group of psychologists (which includes 3 of the experts we interviewed in our Talking Headlines series, Dorothy Bishop, Suzi Gage and Kevin Mitchell) and other child development experts raising concern about how screen time guidelines ‘need to be built on evidence and not hype’. This letter was a response to a previous letter published in the Guardian that raised concerns about screen time without drawing on evidence.

This topic is clearly very important and as a researcher in this area it continues to be extremely frustrating that opinions are cast about as facts.  Last year I attended a conference presentation (lead author Tim Smith, p5) that reported findings that suggested positive effects of iPad usage on toddler’s fine motor skills. I received a phone call the next day from a popular newspaper who was planning to cover the story. Their questions however were persistently focused on what negative effects there are of iPad usage in early childhood and their key aim was to get me to state a set amount of time that children should be restricted to using such technology. The article never appeared. I would not be drawn on evidence that did not exist nor ignore the evidence I had heard very clearly the day before.  An example of even when the evidence is there, if it is not in the ‘right’ direction, it can be ignored because of an agenda… least by that particular media outlet.

Here is a previous post of ours about research and media coverage in this area:

September 2015 Research the Headlines post

Media coverage about young children’s use of technology such as iPads and television is as prevalent as ever. A survey published last week examining frequency of use of iPads and other devices in very young children seems to have spurned a range of different views from psychologists and other childhood experts. At Research the Headlines, we have repeatedly emphasised the importance of including independent expert opinions when discussing research; so, in the case of this coverage on toddlers use of iPads, have these experts helped to clarify research findings?

In this case, some of the views put forward by one independent expert can only be considered disturbing. The Daily Mail covered the topic of toddlers using iPads in two different articles last week. The first article reported on the survey conducted by Childwise, which had found a rise in toddlers’ use of technology by approximately 12 more minutes per day than the last survey in 2012. That article referred to a Childwise spokesperson who had commented that the report ‘breaks the traditional correlation previously seen between increasing age and device ownership. By four most youngsters are self-sufficient on a tablet or computer and a significant minority are becoming independent players across the spectrum of mobile phones, TV and the internet.’ The spokesperson appropriately describes the study findings.

Four days later, however, the same newspaper interviewed Dr. Richard House, referred to in the article as a leading psychologist. Here the paper states the expert’s opinion as ‘giving iPads to babies is tantamount to child abuse‘ because it is ‘playing Russian roulette’ with their development‘. Indeed, the headline of the story also refers to use of iPads as like playing ‘Russian roulette’ with a child’s development. He is also quoted as saying that parents should ‘proceed with caution’ to avoid a ‘developmental catastrophe’.  These comments – particularly the reference to use of iPads being ‘tantamount to abuse’ – do not rationally describe the research findings (assuming this story has come on the back of the Childwise survey reported in the same newspaper 4 days before).

In another Research the Headlines post on this topic, one of our other writers spoke about the moral panic around the use of technology by children in our society. Again, like the coverage around research on this topic at that point, the media focus is heavily opinion-based, moving quite far away from the actual research evidence and using highly emotive language to discuss the topic.  As a child psychologist, the terms ‘playing Russian roulette with a child’s development’ and risk of ‘developmental catastrophe’ are alien to me. During the coverage on this topic back in February, readers scrutinised some of the claims which lead to several outlets backtracking and editing published headings. It is a pity that, with the passage of time, we end up in the same scenario on this topic.

Conclusion in January 2017

It is with great disappointment then that I end this blog post with the same sentence I ended with in September 2015! It is a pity that, with the passage of time, we end up in the same scenario on this topic! Hopefully though this letter  will help shift focus to an evidence based approach to the development and publication of any screen time guidelines that are produced.

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