In the 16th century, the invention of the printing press facilitated access to books and the knowledge that they contained. However, many scholars of the time were alarmed by the effects of the new technology. Conrad Gessner, who listed all the books published in the first century after the invention of the printing press, said in 1545 that the abundance of books was confusing and harmful to the mind and asked kings and princes to take measures to control the gibberish.
More recently, in the 19th century, there were fears that schooling would exhaust children’s brains, and in the early 20th century, some were afraid that the radio would distract children from reading. In 1985, Neil Postman, director of the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, accused television of pushing society toward “collective stupidity” and of creating a future in which people would live in a framework of useless formal freedoms because no one would be able to exercise them due to pure ignorance.
Now, some experts warn that the screens of electronic devices have created the first generation of children who are less intelligent than their parents, and those parents are organizing to restrict the use of electronic devices among schoolchildren. However, despite the widespread alarm, there are few reliable studies that explain the problem. In a 2019 editorial, the medical journal The Lancet stated that “our understanding of the benefits, harms, and risks of our rapidly changing digital landscape is painfully poor.” Now, the journal Nature Human Behavior has published a review of studies on this issue with unexciting conclusions. In a paper that includes the results of 2,451 studies and almost two million participants under 18 years of age, the authors conclude that the use of screens is associated with risks and some benefits, but that in any case the effects are small.
The results show that the ability to read and write and learning in general worsens slightly when more time is spent in front of screens, that junk food advertisements in digital media encourage children to consume it, and that the use of social media slightly increases the risk of depression. There were some positive effects, which depend more on the use made of them than on the screens themselves. Watching television with parents increased reading and writing skills, and using screens for educational augmented reality programs had positive effects on learning.
“I don’t think the size of the effects we found in this paper supports [screens] being such a big concern,” says Taren Sanders, a researcher at Australian Catholic University and lead author of the paper. “We found effects, such as the relationship between depression and social media use, that were somewhat worrying, but in most cases we did not find large effects that would make us think that this should be the number one concern [for parents],” he adds. “That doesn’t mean that for some children it isn’t a big problem, but on average, it probably isn’t what has the most influence on children’s lives,” he concludes. The strongest correlation found in all studies is 0.2, the same as other studies have found between level of intelligence and height.
Among the main negative effects, the use of social media showed a strong relationship with risky behaviors, substance abuse, and unsafe sex. The authors point out that the companies themselves suggest that their products may have negative effects on the mental health of young people, especially adolescent girls. Among the positive effects, interventions that use screens to promote learning or healthy habits stand out, although they insist that the benefit may not be due so much to the screen as to the use it is given.
“I am the father of a two-year-old child and I try not to buy into this hysteria, because I know that there is no scientific justification,” says Borja del Pozo, researcher at the University of Cádiz and co-author of the study. “The negative effects are not so great, nor is every screen bad, it is more complex than that,” he adds. Guides with screen use recommendations such as the WHO’s are very restrictive, despite the fact that no solid evidence has been found for the damage that screens supposedly cause. This is for fear that the lack of evidence is due to the fact that there is damage that is not being measured correctly. “With this meta-analysis we have seen that the effects of the screen depend on what is looked at, with whom, and for what purpose. If you look at educational content while accompanied by educators, the effect is positive,” says Del Pozo. In the article, the authors suggest that these guides warn against excessive use of social media, but consider adapting their recommendations to encourage the use of educational applications and video games.
Despite not finding data to justify the alarm, Sanders recognizes that the field of research changes rapidly, and it is difficult for researchers to follow technological and content changes. “Social media has the world’s brightest minds continually thinking about how to get us to stay 30 seconds longer on Facebook, so it’s not easy for researchers to keep up,” he concedes.
Historical examples show a tendency to worry about the effects of new technologies on the human mind, but in Sanders’ opinion, that is no reason to simply dismiss the potential risks of technologies as powerful as mobile phones. “Historically, we worry about what’s new, and when we learn more about it, we adapt and integrate it into our lives,” he says. “This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry, but rather we should stop, take a breath, and look at the evidence before getting too concerned about screen time,” he concludes.
Luisa Fassi, a researcher at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the study, also believes that the information provided by the studies so far suggests that a “more nuanced” position is needed. “If there is still no evidence, we should wait before making big statements because it could generate panic and restrict technology, causing negative effects,” she says. “In this matter the evidence is not clear, so I understand that those responsible for public policies have a difficult time deciding.” Fassi believes that parents have a right to be concerned and that it is necessary for researchers to analyze the effects of such a powerful technology. However, as these are ubiquitous devices, it is difficult to establish cause-effect relationships. A person who has worse mental health or worse grades in class could due to the effect of screens or they may just take refuge in screens in certain difficult situations. With growing social interest, the field still has much work to do to evaluate how the use of particular screens in particular circumstances affects the health or learning of children and young people.
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