Screen time versus real time

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The latest advice from chief medical officers about screen time for children is welcome, says Sally Goddard Blythe.


Sally Goddard Blythe

While a recent report by the Commons science and technology select committee flagged a lack of high-quality research into the effects of screen time on young people, much of the research focuses on what is happening during screen time not on what screen time prevents.

While children are occupied with electronic games they are neither physically nor socially active.   Screen play is very different from real play in terms of physical interaction, imagination and creativity.

Research investigating children’s physical skills in primary schools suggests that there has been a declining trend in maturity in children’s physical skills over the last 15 years, with children with the least mature physical skills performing less well in measures of educational attainment.

Electronic games are pre-programmed with a set number of responses, which do not adapt to reactions of the individual.  This is not the same as social interaction in real time, which involves constantly changing flexible responses and the ability to “read” the body language of others and adjust reactions accordingly (non-verbal communication).  Screen games are not as conducive to the development of speech as time engaged in conversation with a sympathetic listener.

Screen time does not develop control of the specific eye movements needed to support reading or the hand-eye coordination involved in writing, copying and catching a ball.

Screen time is socially distracting for both children and adults, drawing attention away from immediate social situations, conversations etc.   Distraction of any kind can interrupt sustained attention with the brain taking up to 15 minutes to  recover its  former state of attention. This can contribute to signs of attention deficit, in the absence of true attention deficit disorder and lead to parents being socially or emotionally “unavailable” to their children while their attention is focused elsewhere. 

Screen time can affect the availability of dopamine – a neurotransmitter involved the perception of reward – potentially making screen time addictive to the detriment of willingness or time to engage in other activities.

This is not to say that screen time is an inherently bad thing.  It gives access to information and entertainment beyond the scope of the immediate environment, broadens horizons and through social media, is a source of communication, but it does have a social impact which is changing the way that we live and potentially develop as social mammals.

Humans were designed to develop and live in the physical world and there are critical periods in early life when the developing nervous system is primed to learn through sensory-motor interaction and experience; to feel as well as to think. The most recent advice issued by the chief medical officers is practical and sensible and provides a simple code for good manners in a rapidly changing technological world (the definition of good manners being to consider the needs of others). 

The most recent advice for parents and carers includes:

  • Get enough good-quality sleep. Leave phones and devices outside the bedroom when it is bedtime.
  • Take a break every couple of hours sitting or lying down using a screen. (For younger children this time should be reduced)
  • Advise older children to put their screens away while crossing the road or doing an activity that needs their full attention.
  • Talk with your children about using screens and what they are watching. A change in behaviour can be a sign they are distressed - make sure they know they can always speak to an adult if they feel uncomfortable with screen or social media use.
  • Consider screen-free meal times (for all members of the family) so you can have face-to-face conversations, with adults giving their full attention to children.
  • Try using features on some devices and platforms to keep track of time spent looking at screens or on social media

Sally Goddard Blythe MSc (Psych), international director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology. Sally is the author of eight books on child development.

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