Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Screen Time

Does handing your child an iPad automatically make you a bad parent? Is blue light responsible for everything bad ever? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Screen time! Will YouTube keep your kid safely entertained? Will that game you just got your 20th pop-up ad for be any good? Stare into this screen and find out.

Lie #1: Children Are Rotting Their Brains Staring Into Screens All Day

Whenever screen time comes up in the context of children, it’s with a sense of dismayed tutting, like only the shittiest and most neglectful of parents would lower themselves to handing their kid a tablet for half an hour here and there. Like so many issues, though, making it a black-and-white thing is incredibly reductive. What a kid is watching, and how and why, and how non-screen time is spent, are all so much more important than, “Look at this crappy parent giving their kid the iPad.” There’s a world of difference between a parent and child sitting down together to watch something and talk about it afterwards, and, “Fuck off and watch some violent cartoons, you little shit.”

According to the World Health Organization, the main issues with young children and screens are about what screens don’t do, rather than what they do — the passive, sedentary nature of watching TV means every hour spent doing that is an hour without any exercise. They suggest no more than an hour a day in front of screens for the under-five set. However, this report — which stemmed from an investigation into child obesity — led to some criticism from, among others, the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). The RCPCH suggests that as long as screen time is controlled and the family can be confident it isn’t negatively impacting sleep, exercise or snacking, that placing an arbitrary time limit on it is unhelpful.

Even with screen time, modern parents spend vastly more time with their children than those of previous generations. Screens are also, obviously, an enormous part of modern life, even before the coronavirus rendered them essential for homeschooling and speaking to friends and family. (Even very prescriptive models that insist on no more than X minutes per day allow for things like Skyping relatives, due to the interactive, social elements involved.) Running around is obviously better for a kid than vegetating in front of the TV or staring into a phone screen for hours on end — that’s a no-brainer — but stuff also needs to get done. If you’re in lockdown with kids while trying to work, and sticking Frozen on is the difference between getting it done and not, feeling like you’re the worst parent alive is doing nobody any good.

Earlier this year, as the goddamned COVID changed everything, a group of American pediatricians coined the “three Cs” as a more useful thing to think about than just time spent in front of screens: child, content and context. Jenny Radesky, one of the pediatricians involved, told the New York Times, “We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard. There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don’t be on it all day.”

In her book The Art of Screen Time, NPR’s Anya Kamenetz writes, “You will be more effective as a parent, and have more fun as a family, if you drop the guilt and embrace the good that screens have to offer, while balancing media with other priorities.” Kamenetz argues there is no point in beating oneself up about what is an inescapable part of 2020s life, suggesting instead accepting them as part of life, discussing what has been watched/played and using them as a family. In a spin on Michael Pollan’s famous rule of nutrition — “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — she concludes: “Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly together.”

Lie #2: “I’ll Just Put Peppa Pig on the iPad For A Bit, Everything Will Be Fine”

Be careful! YouTube has an ongoing problem (YouTube has a lot of ongoing problems) with really fucked-up stuff that superficially resembles known, beloved properties. A search for Peppa Pig, for instance, can easily lead to nasty, gnarly homemade videos of Peppa having violent tooth extractions or giving birth.

Some of this stuff is generated algorithmically from popular search terms being smashed together, and some of it is created maliciously by truly crappy people. Either way, there’s a lot of it about. Known as Elsagate, it made headlines in 2017, leading YouTube to delete tons of videos (and several channels purported to contain real child abuse). 

However, it is all still happening. The r/Elsagate subreddit is constantly updated with really horrible stuff — currently, the big thing seems to be Minecraft Monster School videos featuring violent sex games. The internet: It’s quite bad!

Lie #3: “Hey, This Game Advertised Within This Other Game Looks Good!”

If you spend a lot of time shitting, you’ll be familiar with the ads for awesome-looking phone games that pop up in other games all the goddamn time. A lot of them involve attempting not to electrocute people by pulling a series of bolts out of a many-chambered structure, or trying to extinguish a fire while two characters are on a date next to it, or any number of similar oddly compelling scenarios. There’s one involving a man with a mustache being very cold that is somehow extraordinarily appealing.

The thing is, as a lot of people have found upon subsequently downloading the advertised games, the ads that appear to show incredibly fun gameplay are way more interesting than the games themselves, which contain none of the interesting mechanics and lateral thinking exercises shown.

Journalist Alex Goldman took a look at the phenomenon on a recent episode of the podcast Reply All, concluding it was easier to make a good fake ad for a pretty same-y game than to actually make the more complicated game depicted — especially when the same-y game uses a tried-and-tested mechanic that makes it hard to put down despite not being very good. “What these companies have realized is that players are way more interested in the fake game that they’ve advertised in these ads than the one that they’ve actually made,” he concluded. “It’s pretty simple to just make an animation that just looks like a new game, get people to download it, and then like, mopes like me, by the time they hit level 25, they’re hooked.”

Lie #4: You Need a Lot of Time on Screen to Make a Big Impression

Tell that to Jesse Heiman. The internet’s favorite extra turned a small amount of screen time into online fame, chat show appearances and high-profile Super Bowl ads, and is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, World’s Greatest Extra.

“Extra work isn’t just staying in the background, being quiet,” he tells me. “We’re very much a big part of the production. They can’t make shows without us. We’re not trapped in this part of the industry, either — we can emerge from the crowd, do auditions and become part of the speaking cast. The sky is the limit — if you have the talent and the skills, anyone can make it in this town, and I’m just one example of that.” 

Lie #5: “My Phone’s on Night Shift, I’ll Sleep Fine!”

Blue light gets blamed for a lot. Blue light in general is fine — we’re covered in the stuff all day. It’s exposure to it from artificial sources — like phones, tablets and TVs — at night that messes up our body’s circadian rhythms and suppresses melatonin production, negatively affecting your sleep. (The glass-half-full way of looking at this is that it can be used to fight fatigue, improve reaction times and generally improve alertness when awake.)

Exposure to blue light at night makes you want to eat more sugar, speeds up age-related sight loss, accelerates the aging process and can increase your risk of breast and prostate cancer. Again though, just at night. Blue light can also be magnificent. It can help speed up recovery from mild traumatic brain injury, fight staph infections, reduce blood pressure, help out stressed sleepy teenagers — some of whom, ahahaha, are presumably stressed and sleepy because of being on their phones all goddamn night — and potentially fight other cancers.

So, if blue light at night = really bad, things like Apple’s Night Shift should solve everything, reducing blue light output in the hours of darkness. 

Done, right?

Sadly no. There are plenty of other ways phones mess with your sleep, beyond whatever color light they’re emitting. Overstimulation, stress and anxiety aren’t good for sleep, and so much goddamned bullshit is happening in the world at the moment that even the quickest of pre-slumber scrolls through your social feeds is likely to expose you to at least one thing that either sets your mind racing or renders you completely, teeth-clenchingly livid. 

Avoiding screens for two hours before bed is what sleep experts recommend — or whatever you can realistically do without going bonkers. So go get a big-ass jigsaw puzzle or a massive honkin’ LEGO truck and sleep the wonderful sleep of a giant baby.