Dr Sam Wass: 'Don't ban children's screen use'

Monday, February 11, 2019

The developmental psychologist and contributing psychologist on The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, talks to Nursery World about children’s screen use and whether he thinks there is cause for concern.

Children’s screen time has been a hotly debated topic lately, why do you think it is such a contentious issue?

We are living in a time where childhood is changing faster than it ever has before.
There is some really interesting research looking at our rate of change as a species over the last 20,000 years. It used to be that things didn’t change that much. My childhood was similar to my parents’ childhood, and their childhood was similar to a childhood hundreds of years ago. Now we are at a stage where child development is changing so rapidly and the things our children are using their brains for is certainly different to a child hundreds of years ago.

There has been a massive change since the iPhone, a big screen phone, came out in 2008 and the iPad in 2010. When you and I were children, we had a screen in our sitting room, whereas now we have screens everywhere, which has meant the time children watch screens has gone up. Its even starker when we compare it to a child a 100 or 150 years ago who would have never seen a screen. We are living at this stage of very rapid change. What happens as a species is that when there is change, we worry about it, which is very natural.

There is a lovely quote from Socrates when writing had become widespread – he said if everyone was writing stuff down they wouldn’t have to use their memory and claimed every child would be 'ruined'. There are also some lovely quotes from a magazine in the 1930s when radio was the new technology, which stated that children were spending all their time sitting listening to all these exciting things on the radio, leading to them becoming overstimulated to their detriment.

That said, it doesn’t mean we necessarily shouldn’t be worrying. We know that there is a thing called brain plasticity, so the brain develops differently depending on what we are using it for.  We know that what we use our brains for has changed a lot, so it is really important that we are doing research to look at the effects these changes are having on children. 

Do worries surrounding the impact of screen use on young children’s development warrant concern?

Similar to others, I agree that in terms of the effect of tablets and phones on young children, not enough time has lapsed to see if there is an impact.

There has however been a decent amount of research now into screens generally. In particular, one big review came out looking at screens and ADHD - whether there is a relationship between the two. This review looked at the results across a large number of studies. It concluded that if there is a relationship it is a really weak one. There’s some research out there suggesting there might be a stronger relationship in boys than girls.

From the point of screen use generally, we have had quite a few years to look at this question - TVs have been around since the 1960s. if there is a relationship, it is a very small one.

Like everything, some common-sense advice is too much of anything can be a bad thing.

Can screens be used in a positive way?

I would argue, and I think a lot of people would agree with me, that children can learn a huge amount from screens, they can be exposed to a volume of stuff that can stimulate their imagination. It’s interesting to think back to a five-year-old 150 years ago. Before screens, they only really would have seen things in real life. A child growing up in London would have only seen things in the area they could physically cover and explore with their own two feet. A British child would certainly have never seen an elephant or a jellyfish. Any of these things a young child would take for granted now.

We get a lot of stimulation, our imaginations are really full of all these different things we watch on screens, but at the same time, if that’s all we do, it’s definitely not a good idea.  We get some positive benefits, but we also get positive benefits from doing arts and crafts – important for our fine motor skills, from being outdoors – physical exercise is really important. For things like mood, we know it is really important to be moving. Even in young children, lots of movement makes us happier. There’s lots of evidence suggesting that, so it’s important to do it as part of a varied diet.

It’s also really important to integrate the stuff children consume on a screen with real world interaction. Children will often watch something on a screen and spontaneously start an imaginary play episode, where they are acting out something they have seen on a screen.

Parents should talk to children about the content they have seen. There is loads of research showing that a child engaging in extended conversations with an adult is by far the best way to stimulate their language development. It can be a great way of motivating a child to get into a real long depth conversation about something they’ve seen.

Children can also learn from cartoons. I’ve done some research into children and cartoons and found that animation is very helpful for children to learn how to read people’s emotions.

Cartoons are a simplified version of reality. We might not recognise or realise it, but babies and young children find a lot of day-to-day social interactions quite hard to follow. Emotions are often quite subtle on the face - a small change on the face can indicate a small change in emotion. Real world emotions happen quite fast, are quite complex and quite nuanced. Cartoon faces are simplified, the key features, the eyes and the mouth are bigger, which means they are easier for a child to watch and follow. Often on a cartoon the eyes have big black lines around them, which makes it easier for a child to see what is going on in the face. They can understand a cartoon much more than day-to-day interaction in the real world. The emotions that characters go through in a cartoon tend to be simpler emotions than in the real world too. Maybe children are learning how to follow real world emotions by starting off on a simplified version?

What are your thoughts on setting screen limits for children?

It is hard to set a number of minutes per day type of limit I think, for a variety of reasons. One reason is that screen use can vary from day-to-day. I think one of the big factors is, the difference between a child on their own on a screen versus sitting there watching something together with an adult. This idea of shared adult/parent time, where you are both paying attention to a screen can be really important and benefits children in a lot of ways, on top of what they get from watching a screen on their own. These are all reasons why I think it is hard to put a particular number on it. It’s really important to be integrating with other activities, and linking it to social interaction, language and that kind of thing. Definitely do it as part of a varied diet. Personally, given how much you can stimulate a child’s imagination from the range of different things they can watch on a screen, then I would say don’t ban it completely.

The other part of this, that I find appealing, is that how we consume information has changed, but what is quite reassuring to think about is that the types of stories children find appealing really hasn’t changed. For example, popular cartoon Masha and the Bear tells the story of a girl that is suddenly away from her parents, she is very adventurous. She goes off and has these adventures and sometimes she goes and has a scrape, and there is an adult like figure, who is the bear, who is not her parent, but there to save her when things go wrong. This kind of basic model for a childhood story is so similar to all the boarding school stories like Harry Potter, the BFG, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Enid Blyton and Peter Pan.

Children’s thirst and the type of stories they find appealing, hasn’t changed. They are very similar to the types of stories we were consuming when we were children, which is a reassuring thought for a lot of parents.

Dr Sam Wass is a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East London

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