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Screen Time for Kids Is Fine! Unless It's Not

The anti-smartphone movement is having a moment. On March 25, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning children under 14 from social media platforms. In February, the UK government backed tighter guidance to keep children from using their smartphones at school. In the past year, grassroots organizations like Smartphone Free Childhood have risen to national prominence as parents fret about the damage that screens and social media might be causing to young people’s mental health.

Beneath all this worry is a fiendishly difficult question: What impact are smartphones having on our mental health? The answer depends on who you ask. For some, the evidence that smartphones are eroding our well-being is overwhelming. Others counter that it isn’t all that strong. There are blogs, then counter-blogs, each often pointing to the same scientific papers and drawing opposing conclusions.

Into this maelstrom we can now add two books, published within a week of each other, that sit squarely in opposite corners in the fight. In The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt lays out his argument that smartphones and social media are the key driver of the decline in youth mental health seen in many countries since the early 2010s.

The early 2010s were crucial, Haidt argues, because that was when smartphones really began to transform childhood into something unrecognizable. In June 2010, Apple introduced its first front-facing camera, and a few months later Instagram launched on the App Store. For Haidt, this was a fateful combination. Children were suddenly always online, always on display, and connected in ways that were often detrimental to their well-being. The result was a “tidal wave” of anxiety, depression, and self-harm, mostly affecting young girls.

In Haidt’s telling, though, smartphones are only part of the problem. He thinks that children in the West are prevented from developing healthily thanks to a culture of “safetyism” that keeps children indoors, shelters them from risks, and replaces rough-and-tumble free play with adult-directed organized sports or—even worse—video games. For evidence of safetyism in action, Haidt contrasts a picture of a 1970s playground merry-go-round, (“the greatest piece of playground equipment ever invented”) with a modern set of play equipment designed with safety in mind and, thus, giving children less opportunity to learn from risky play.

This is Haidt’s Great Rewiring in a nutshell: Childhood has switched from being predominantly play-based to being phone-based, and as a result, young people are less happy as children and less competent as adults. They are also, Haidt seems to argue, more boring. US high school seniors today are less likely to have drunk alcohol, had sex, have a driving license, or worked than their predecessors. Wrapped in cotton wool by their parents and absorbed by their online lives, young people aren’t transitioning into adulthood in a healthy way, Haidt argues.

These arguments are familiar from Haidt’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, coauthored with journalist and activist Greg Lukianoff. It’s not just that American children are experiencing worse mental health than before, Haidt suggests, but that their transition to adulthood is now stymied by modern parenting and technology. “Once we had a new generation hooked on smartphones before the start of puberty, there was little space left in the stream of information entering their eyes and ears for guidance from mentors in their real-world communities during puberty,” Haidt writes in his latest work.

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It’s an argument that goes beyond the thin slices of plastic and metal that fill so much of our days. Haidt’s anxiety is not just about children—the portion on smartphones and mental health makes up only about half of the book—but about a society of diminished grown-ups, zombified by screens and sheltered from the rough-and-tumble reality that makes them into functioning adults.

Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time (and How to Spend It Better) by British psychologist Pete Etchells is much more modest in scope. While Haidt closes his book with strong recommendations (limit social media accounts to over-16s, encourage phone-free schools, strictly limit at-home screen time), Etchells is much more circumspect in his conclusions. His default stance is the scientist’s catechism: More research is needed.

Or, to be more precise, better research is needed. As Etchells describes, it can be hard to wring much sense out of the scientific literature examining screen time and its effect on mental health, sleep, and so on. These studies constantly run into a myriad of problems: What kind of screen time should we be measuring? Are Zoom calls the same as social media? How do we tease out the possible impact of screen time from the other factors that can influence mental health?

The most compelling response is to look at charts that measure rates of anxiety and depression, self-harm, or suicide among teenagers. Often these charts have a shaded portion from 2010 to mark the start of the smartphone era, and then a sharp upturn (or downturn) that shows how bad things have grown. No other factor can explain this dramatic shift, Haidt argues, other than smartphones.

But that doesn’t explain the question of why smartphones are having this impact, if indeed they are. In his book, Etchells picks through much of the literature on screen time, including studies from Haidt and his sometime collaborator, psychologist Jean Twenge, whose work on the link between smartphones and mental health in young people has been extremely influential.

Sometimes, scientists looking at the same data draw opposite conclusions. In 2019, two researchers from the University of Oxford pooled data on digital technology use and well-being in adolescents and concluded that screens do have a slight negative impact on well-being, but that the effect was very small. A few years later Twenge, Haidt, and colleagues ran a different analysis on the same datasets and instead concluded that social media did have a big negative impact on girls in particular—stronger than binge drinking, sexual assault, or hard drug use.

Etchells argues that the Haidt and Twenge paper ran a more restricted analysis than the earlier study—not exactly refuting the previous findings but looking in a slightly different place and finding quite different results. “The result was a study that was simply a rehash of previous relationship analyses but under a different name, with the associated claim that it was therefore more rigorous. In reality it just added noise to an already chaotic literature,” Etchells writes.

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Throughout his book, Etchells weaves his own personal experience to offer a counter to the argument that screens are necessarily damaging to our lives. His previous book, Lost in a Good Game, describes how video games helped him cope with the death of his father when he was aged 14. In Unlocked he rediscovers his blogs on LiveJournal from his late teens—the writings of a depressed teenager working through his feelings in public and searching for connection with other people.

A tour through the online traces of our teenage selves is a toe-curling experience, but Etchells is making a point about how cause and effect get muddled when we think about our screen times. Was LiveJournal making him depressed, or was it simply where he went to process those feelings? Lying awake in bed at night thinking about this piece, I reach for my smartphone—is the device contributing to my sleeplessness, or is it simply another symptom of it?

Both books end with a series of recommendations—Etchells’ are much more modest than Haidt’s. He implores us to be more thoughtful in how we talk about (and research) screen time, to reflect more on our habits and tweak the ones that aren’t working for us, and to be more critical of what we’re told about our devices.

While Etchells is asking for a more reflective relationship with our screens, Haidt implores governments—and parents—to tear up our current approaches and start afresh. In his book, screens are both a cause and a symptom of a society that is careening off the rails, and nothing less than a reboot will get things back on track.

It is hard to ignore in Haidt’s book a desire to roll back the clock to a simpler time: One where kids could play out late unsupervised and whirl on the playground roundabout until they were sick. But the line between wanting them to have happier, healthier lives and wanting them to have the lives that kids used to have is very different. Does it really matter if young people today are drinking less, having sex later, or learning to drive later? What is it about their lives that we are trying to fix?

Etchells implores us to be more thoughtful readers about technology. “Rather than take a knee-jerk antagonistic approach to sensationalism about screens, then, we need to approach it with a sense of cautious curiosity. If you find yourself questioning a new study about digital technology that doesn’t fit with your worldview, then of course investigate, dig deeper—but do so with an open mind, and the aim of understanding.”

The answer might lay somewhere between these two books. It might be a mistake to throw phones out altogether, but we should think carefully about how we make sure our devices are enriching the lives of young people rather than the opposite. We should address the problems of screen time, without ignoring the other myriad things that erode the well-being of young people. And rather than looking through the lens of our own experience as adults, we should center the experience of children and ask them what would make them happier.

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