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Posted October 28, 2016

Could parents’ fears obstruct their children’s thriving in the digital age?
by Candice Odgers
October 28, 2016

Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released their latest set of recommendations regarding screen time and children. After years of being warned about the toxic effects of screens on children, finally we have an evidence-based set of guidelines that may actually help educators, families, and children successfully navigate “screen time” in the digital age.

The new guidelines are different from those issued in the past in two important ways. First, they move away from dictating a maximum number of hours that children of certain ages should be allowed to be in front of screens and instead move toward a more evidence-based approach to helping parents develop media use plans that work for their family and for their child. Instead of setting a timer, the focus is on helping parents to set goals for what they want their child to learn and experience when they are interacting with a screen.

“Time spent online has also increased drastically during this time, as have parental fears.”

Second, for both children and youth there is an acknowledgement that the use of new technologies can have both positive and negative effects on development. This is important as the debate about children’s use of new technologies has been divisive and driven in large part, as my colleague Yalda Uhls has elegantly argued, by a fear versus fact approach to parenting in the digital age.

For years we have struggled to advise the parents of the adolescents participating in our studies about safe and effective guidelines for the use of mobile and new technologies. We have watched over the last decade how relatively few of the youngest adolescent participants in our studies had their own phone, to the point where now over 70% of the young adolescents we see (and close to 90% of older adolescents) have access to a mobile device. Time spent online has also increased drastically during this time, as have parental fears.

Seven fears about the digital age and adolescents

With my graduate student Madeleine George, we started to record the fears that parents were expressing about the effects that time spent on mobile devices might be having on their children. We identified seven common fears that we were hearing from parents, seeing repeatedly in the media, and that were being endorsed by parents in large-scale surveys.

We then started to review what scientists had learned about the influence of online time and activities on adolescents’ developing brains, bodies, and relationships. What evidence was there that, for example, “kids are losing their ability to connect and communicate with others in the real world” or that “devices are driving our children to distraction”?

In our article, “Seven fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age” we synthesized research in these areas and found evidence supporting  both positive and negative effects of new and mobile technologies on adolescents’ development.  For example, there was clear evidence that time spent on mobile devices was disrupting adolescents’ sleep time and quality and that new tools for cyber and online bullying were being deployed with negative consequences.

But, there was also data to support positive effects – for example, children with the strongest offline relationships tended to communicate more online, which in turn, predicted stronger future relationships over time. In experimental studies, virtual communication seemed to help adolescents “bounce back” from social exclusion. In general, teens online relationships, risks and experiences tended to mirror their offline ones.

Readers defending the good vs. evil narrative about kids’ technology use

The take home message from our survey of the science was that there are as many, if not more, studies supporting a story of positive versus negative influences of mobile and new technologies on adolescents’ development. Despite the many fears that adults have about their seemingly “constantly connected” kids, the data suggested that there were also numerous opportunities for learning and strengthening relationships.

These findings were surprising to us given the relatively strong and consistent negative narrative that we had been hearing about kids and their high levels of engagement with mobile devices. However, what we found even more surprising was the level of anger that the reporting of these findings generated. In the days following the publication of this paper our voice mail and inboxes were filled with messages from angry parents and readers who were upset by the idea that kids could be benefiting from online activities and interactions.

Alison Gopnik wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal to reassure parents based on these findings that “No, Your Children Aren’t Becoming Digital Zombies” and again, the comments and reaction to the message was almost uniformly negative.

“In the days following the publication of this paper our voice mail and inboxes were filled with messages from angry parents and readers who were upset by the idea that kids could be benefiting from online activities and interactions.”

I began to pay close attention to how the reporting of findings related to the effects of technology on kids is received based on the comment sections and online discussions. With few exceptions, comments are virtually uniform in their agreement and praise for findings that report negative effects. In contrast, the reporting of findings that suggest benefits associated with time spent online are quickly dismissed or met with hostile reactions and comments.

As is usually the case, the truth about the effects of new technologies on our children likely lies somewhere in the middle of the good versus evil narratives that are being played out on parenting blogs, in the media and, more recently, in the scientific community. Perhaps with the smart and science-based guidelines from the AAP last week, we can begin to check our fears as parents against what we can learn from science, to help ensure that children can truly thrive in the digital age.

About the author

The previous post first appeared on BOLD. We encourage you to read other blogs posted on BOLD. 

BOLD – Blog on Learning and Development is an interdisciplinary initiative powered by the Jacobs Foundation, dedicated to spreading the word about how children and young people develop and learn. Researchers at various stages of their careers as well as science journalists, policymakers, and practitioners have their say on this blog. BOLD is designed as a digital platform for the exchange of ideas and opinions.