I’m old. Ok, I might not be a Methuselah yet, but I’m quite old and certainly old enough to have grown up without any access to computers, tablets, smartphones or even the huge ever-growing pulsating internet. Screen-wise, those olden days were pretty bare. We had the telly and… well, that was more or less it, unless you counted the LCD display on someone’s digital Casio watch.
Fast forward to the 21st century and we’re surrounded by screens. So much so, that concerns have been raised whether all these screens are all that good for us. Especially if you’re a parent, in which case you’re no doubt familiar with the concept of ‘screen time’.
As a parent, you’re responsible for your child’s health, and are therefore most helpfully inundated with (not seldom contradicting) information as to what is good and bad for your offspring. You’re no doubt well-informed on everything from dietary needs and forms of exercise to mental stimulation and creative outlets suitable for kids. Additionally, you’re most likely also well aware of less ideal forms of spending time, like watching telly or being online.
The latter two are the ones responsible for the birth of the phrase ‘screen time’, where we allocate a certain amount of time the kids get to spend in front of a screen per day. This will help to prevent any negative consequences of being exposed to computer and television screens.
But hold on a minute. Negative consequences? What negative consequences? Are screens actually dangerous to our health?
Well… Yes and no. Old CRT screens (ah, that brings me back…) did contain electron guns – three of them in fact, one for each primary colour in the RGB spectrum – that fired electrons at a high velocity at a grille that was situated in the screen surface itself. Hence, a small amount of ionising radiation could possibly leak from the screen and hit whoever sat in front of it.
In practice, the amount of radiation (mainly in the form of x-rays) turned out to be rather modest and was generally considered to be harmless to humans. And with the advent of flat screen technology, emitted radiation was limited to visible light and therefore no more damaging than a dim table lamp.
There are however other, less direct consequences of screen usage that are more related to lifestyle choices (something I addressed in my post Fat and fit? a while back). Sitting still often and for extended periods of time will eventually affect your health and could potentially lead to anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer and death.
Better safe than sorry
This has led to some parents carefully monitoring the amount of time their children spend in front of screens, often limiting it to 1-2 hours per day. And scary pictures going viral on social media of toddlers staring emptily at TV screens as if hypnotised help to enforce the need for this control.
Seeing kids being completely absorbed by smartphones and tablets is equally unnerving; most likely because we recognise our own compulsive behaviour and want to avoid to help creating similar habits for our children.
The result is the old-fashioned and still-going-strong response of “What are you doing sitting here inside all day? Go and play outside in the fresh air! Do something fun, or go and create something instead of just sitting there like a zombie!”
The hidden danger?
It’s a time-honoured response, and I’m sure I’ll use that phrase or similar on my kids just like my parents did on me. But there’s a twist here, lurking in the shadows. If it’s not the screens themselves that are dangerous, but rather the lack of physical activity, we have another potentially damaging sedentary behaviour we need to stem before it ruins our children irreparably: reading.
I’m of course being facetious; reading isn’t bad for you as such. But my point is none the less a serious one – we don’t object to people reading a book as much as we object people playing video games or watching YouTube videos. And the only reason for this I can think of (apart from the good old technophobic one) is that it creates a sense of exclusion. The person fully absorbed in the non-real world of media is essentially shunning you in favour of it. It’s more fun being there alone than here in the real world with you.
And actually, it wasn’t long ago that reading was treated with an equal amount of contempt and disdain as screen use is today. It just wasn’t seen as natural, disappearing into a make-belief world like that. The difference between books and computers/phones/tablets is mainly one of degrees: it’s easier to quickly become absorbed in multimedia and it’s harder to be distracted. But in essence it’s the same phenomenon: escapism.
Before you start flaming me, let me assure you that I am aware of the differences between actively and passively consuming media. There’s a level of imagination required to make up a world from just written words that’s not called on when watching television. We can zone out watching the latest series, but need to stay focused to make sense of a book.
But – and this is a big but – screen time isn’t just about vegging out watching telly or passively consuming YouTube videos. It’s also about creating, imagining, exploring, inventing and generally challenge one’s limitations and shortcomings. Be it in the form of figuring out how to get past a particularly tricky obstacle in a video game, or getting that new blog theme to behave as you want it, or writing a composed reply to that hateful post that upset you so much, screen time can be filled with challenging tasks and scenarios.
Now, I haven’t seen any fMRI studies of the potential differences between reading a book and using a screen, but I suspect that the results of such a study would be inconclusive. There’s just such a wealth of different experiences in either scenario that it would be nigh on impossible to separate them statistically.
My point, then – at last – is that we should focus less on the evils of screen time and more on the evils of sedentary behaviour. Using computers, smartphones or tablets isn’t automatically bad in itself, but if you spend your entire awake-time in front of a screen it will have detrimental effects on your health. As always, it’s about moderation: enjoy that video game, read your Facebook feed, watch that latest episode of Dr Who (if you must). Use your screen, let the kids use the screens, but let’s not use the screens all the time.
You might even let them read a book or two…