Bob McDonald's Blog

Are young people losing face time to screen time?

The evidence suggests that children are getting too much screen time - and it could be affecting them as adults.
Young people on their phones

At a recent conference, at which I was an invited speaker, an audience of more than 500 delegates was joined by a group of high school students from across the country who were brought there to participate in the day long event. During presentations on stage, I couldn't help but notice that almost every young person in the room was not paying much attention to what was being said. Instead, their heads were down and thumbs were working their phones. Has screen time taken over from facetime among youth?

To be fair, some adults were doing the same thing, but only briefly. The kids were doing it throughout the day, and based on glances between each other and stifled giggles, it was obvious many of them were messaging each other. I assume it was not about what was being said on stage. This was the digital equivalent of talking in class, but it underlined once again the power of digital technology to transform interpersonal communication.

Conferences are an opportunity to meet experts face to face, develop networks, improve your own knowledge through sharing and communicating on a personal level. Usually, at the end of each presentation, people approach the speaker to meet them personally ask specific questions and exchange business cards. At this conference, many young people did approach the speakers, but it was mostly to get a selfie with them. Few questions were asked. It was as though the kids just needed the photo-op to prove they were there.   

There is no question digital technology is here to stay and it is having a profound effect on the way we communicate. But at what point is it best to put the phone down and engage in good old fashioned face to face conversation?

A recent study by the Canadian Paediatric Society examined the negative  effects too much screen time has on children under five years of age. They chose that age group because there's evidence that overexposure to screen time (including smart phones, computers and television) in preschool age can lead to overuse later in life. I wonder if that's what I was seeing at my conference.  

child using a smartphone (Øyvind Holmstad, cc-by-sa-4.0)
The study found some educational benefits for early screen time, in children as young as two. They found well designed, age appropriate programming can can assist in early language and literacy development. For infants and toddlers, the benefits are less clear, especially because they have difficulty making the transition between two dimensional representations on a flat screen to actual three dimensional objects. There is also less physical and social activity involved simply staring at a screen and watching a program, as opposed to sitting beside an adult, turning the pages of a book and being asked to point out objects in an illustration.

The authors of the report say the best learning environment for children is through interacting with an attentive parent or caregiver. This develops interpersonal and motor skills and language, as well as reinforcing the bond between parent and child. Early learning is most efficient and more enriching when done in real time with a real person.    

The study also pointed out that adult screen time also has a negative effect on children's learning. Answering a phone call or responding to a text while caring for a child, not only teaches the child that the behaviour is acceptable, but can also trigger frustration from lack of attention leading to behavioural issues.

This is not to say devices should be banned altogether for children. The report suggest no more than one hour of exposure per day for children under five, (most children receive two to four hours) and if possible, that time should be shared with the adult. Devices should be turned off during family time and during meals, and caregivers should balance screen time with activity time. They key is to engage with children directly.

And I'd say what goes for children goes for young adults - maybe all adults. There is no question that the digital realm provides unlimited access to information that can bolster education.  But information is just that, an accumulation of facts, which on their own, may not stick in the brain.  There is an important social aspect to traditional learning. The most powerful way to actually learn is to meet the experts face to face who are doing the work, who can put the information into context, give it meaning, even make it personal. Conferences are one venue that cultivates that personal connection and it might be wise for organizers to suggest, as airlines do, that devices be disabled during the event so they can have your full attention.

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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