Are screens really destroying young people’s brains?
A new report says there's not as much evidence of physical harm as you might think.
- Leading pediatricians say the assumption that screen time is behind problems is not really supported by research.
- The danger has more to do with a screen being a gateway for unwanted intrusions into a child's life.
- While recommendations are difficult based on the limited amount of research that has been done, the report offers a few.
It's impossible to be a perfect parent, however hard you try. One thing that has a lot of parents feeling continually guilty is the amount of time their kids spend staring at screens. It's mind-boggling. Or is it? A report from the UK's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) concludes that there's little hard evidentiary basis for concern about those screens themselves, at least for 11-24 year-olds. (Its effects on younger children are not considered in the study.) The researchers examined "940 abstracts, with 12 systematic reviews," noting that most of those look only at the effects of watching lots of TV.
What's on kids' screens, however, is another story. Ultimately, the purpose of the report is to offer guidance to parents while calling for more granular research into the documented effects that extended screen times can seem to have on young people.
How many hours are we talking about?
Children and young adults find themselves in front of screens all day. Between computers at school, computers they use for homework, phones, and TV, it's pretty relentless. According to the study, the average person in the group they studied — 109 UK respondents from ages 11 to 24 — spends 7.5 hours a day basking in the cold glow of a device.
Correlation or causality?
Earlier research examined for the report finds correlations between more than two hours of screen time and poor diet, and a negative effect on mental health, with an increased likelihood of depression. There's also some hint of a connection to reduced educational outcomes and sleep and fitness, though the authors describe this as "weak." The study's respondents had their own views of the cost.
So is there a connection?
The report says that presented with some kind of connection, there are four possible interpretations. Quoting the report:
- Screen time is directly "toxic" to health. This view is popular outside the scientific literature, but has essentially no evidence to support it.
- Screen time alters behavior and thus leads to negative outcomes. There is some evidence for this when it comes to diet: Watching screens can distract children from feeling full, and this may be contributing towards increased energy intake mentioned above. Also, children are often exposed to advertising while using screens, which appears to lead to higher intake of unhealthy foods.
- Screen use exposes children and young people to harmful content, through cyberbullying, watching violence or pornography, unrealistic imagery (unrealistic body shapes) or through monitoring online status (e.g. likes) with their peers.
- Screen time displaces positive activities. Analysis of what leads to positive well-being has consistently supported socializing, good sleep, diet and exercise as positive influences. All of these can be displaced by screen-based activities, which may lead to an "opportunity cost" in terms of other beneficial activities. For this reason we feel that this is the main way in which screen time and negative outcomes may be linked.
With the immediate discarding of Item 1, we step away from there being some physical damage being done by screens themselves.
With #2 describing the unhealthy ways in which screen time can distract from important sensations such as a need to eat, it should be mentioned that this also has a positive upside: Screen viewing can also distract a person from not being able to eat for lack of food, and it can provide sometimes-necessary emotional escape from difficult circumstances.
The third possibility is the most frightening to parents: The intrusion of bad actors in their child's life. Cyberbullies can devastate a young spirit, while social sites publish status rankings, host influencers who can damage a young person's self-image, and others deliver content of which parents disapprove.
The damage inflicted in the fourth scenario is simple: If one spends all of one's time onscreen, there's no time left for other activities. This is not unique to screen time, though. Any overwhelming area of interest can eat up too much time for doing other things.
What the report recommends
As we wait for further, more granular, research and clearer answers on this issue, the RCPCH advises beginning with a calm family discussion in which four questions are considered:
- Is screen time in your household controlled?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
In addition, it suggests parents pay attention to the behavior they model via their own screen usage, remembering to:
- Have a plan and stick to it.
- Be aware, but not intrusive or judgmental.
- Think about your own media use.
- Prioritize face-to-face interaction.
- Be snack aware.
- Protect sleep.
The young people questioned by RCPCH have their own simple suggestions.
The report's bottom line is that parents needn't worry about screen time, per se. Existing research doesn't support worries about any specific physiological dangers other than sleep disturbance from engaging in screen time just before bed. On the other hand, the research also doesn't claim any benefits, either. Any positives young people derive from screen time would have to do with the content they consume. And the same is true of negative impacts.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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