How badly does screen time really affect our children? Not as much as you might think, say experts – and there are even some benefits, too
This month the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially classed gaming addiction as a mental health condition, which has left many parents asking: how much screen time should children really be getting?
According to WHO, the symptoms include gaming “taking precedence over other life interests”, impaired control over gaming, and continuation or escalation of gaming, despite negative consequences.
But experts have hit back against these claims, arguing that the evidence is “poor” and misleading to parents in terms of how much screen time is actually acceptable. Dr Pete Etchells, reader in psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, said the classification “sets us up on a slippery slope” that could cause unnecessary concern for some parents.
“It looks as though we’ve got this clear set of formal criteria for diagnosing something, when really if you look at the research that underpins that, we don’t yet. We are essentially pathologising a hobby here, so which one is next?”
Research carried out into tanning and exercise addictions haven’t been given the same amount of attention, says Dr Etchells. “Nobody is talking about those things as seriously potentially harmful things in the same sort of way. So there’s a question of why are games special, and I don’t really have a good answer as to why that is, other than they are really popular.”
There are even some benefits to playing games for short periods of time, says Professor Any Przybylski, associate professor and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute. In fact, research shows that those who play for one-and-a-half hours a day tend to perform better in some measures of mental health than those who don’t play, or play for more than four hours a day.
He adds that the classification is “well-meaning, but premature. Children do have the right to information, and so if we’re worried about the internet or technology or screens, and we’re taking them away, there is an argument to be made that we are violating their human rights.”
Do parents know what’s appropriate?
Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health also said problems with gaming can often be associated with parenting, rather than the game or the individuals. “I think a lot of worry I have about diagnosis is where it places the difficulty in the child rather than in the system around the child, and particularly around the ability of parents to place boundaries around screen time.”
“So whatever we say about the evidence around screen time, we have to have boundaries over when it’s appropriate to use it, and when you have to do other stuff. That’s basic parenting”
Dr Etchells finally adds that: “The best evidence that we currently have really suggests some screen time, some video game playing, is better than non at all, particularly for child wellbeing.”
“To my mind, that’s not the message that has been sent out this week with the new classification; the message that seems to have come across instead is gaming is bad, gaming is addictive.”