As digital devices have come to dominate our lives, research documenting the effects of “screen time” on the human brain has attempted to keep up with technology that is evolving on a daily basis. The fact is that the concept of “screen time” is obsolete. With the average adult spending an average of 11 out of 18 waking hours in front of screens, “screen time” becomes simply “time”. Screens are one of the most important tools of communication, information consumption and value creation.
Until the last century, humans have been exposed solely to natural light that is shifted toward the red side of the spectrum. The rhythms and cycles of our bodies evolved to align with the presence of certain wavelengths of light, which signal our periods of rest and activity. The advent of blue-wavelength screens, energy-efficient fluorescent and LED lighting has caused our sleep/wake cycles to become hazy and confused. Fortunately, technology companies are increasingly designing screens and applications that come with longer light wavelength (less blue light) options for circadian-friendly nighttime reading and media consumption.
Here in western society, it’s easy to vilify screens because we have a choice in media. The print book, and specifically illustrated books, will be around for the foreseeable future, and they are readily available and affordable. It’s a completely different story in the developing world. In remote areas and less-developed nations, print books are expensive to import and produce, not to mention difficult or impossible to find in readers’ native languages. Many technologists and publishers predict that in these countries, digital books will precede – or even eliminate the need for – the development of printed publications, much as the cell phone has eliminated the need for physical telecommunications infrastructure.
With great power comes great responsibility. Screens are tools that, when used responsibly and in the right contexts, lead to the same benefits as other forms of media.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is considering updating its screen time recommendations for young children to reflect current use of technology and the versatility of its use in parenting and education. If we use screens – just as we use books – to teach and to reinforce relationships rather than as distractions and channels for passive consumption of harmful messages, they become bridges between cultures, languages, and people. According to Dr. Ari Brown, the chair of the AAP,
“All technology is not the same, all media is not the same. There’s consumption, and there’s creation, and there’s communication.”
Problems arise when parents allow children to passively consume media without using it as a basis for interaction. Dr. Christakis, an author of the original screen time recommendations who now supports their revision, puts it very clearly:
“The real value of reading to a child isn’t anything magical about the book…The book is providing a platform for a parent and child to interact. The real question is, ‘Does the device promote that kind of back and forth or not?’ It certainly could. It’s all about how it’s used and how it’s structured.”
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