For parents and educators, it is easy to be anxious about youth’s screen time.
We often worry that too much may harm their physical health, mental well-being, and academic performance.
But as Halla Björk Holmarsdottir, professor at OsloMet’s Faculty of Education and International Studies, says, “it is not the amount of screen time we should be worried about, but rather what youths are doing with that time on their screens”.
It is important for us to understand this distinction. Screens can be both a blessing and a curse.
Holmarsdottir’s research focuses on finding out how youths use their devices.
She has developed clever methods to help adults make the most out of something that is a huge part of their lives, including a useful set of conversation cards.
Screen time in context
Holmarsdottir is quick to point out that these concerns are not new; every generation of parents has had some moral panic over how their children spend their time with new technology.
Millennials were told video games would make them violent and Boomers were told television and rock and roll would rot their brains.
In nearly every case, research eventually showed that these activities were not detrimental and may have even had positive social and cognitive effects.
The big difference today is how ubiquitous and interconnected the different screens we use are.
“The problem now is that the technology is so small that it can come with us all the time,” says Holmarsdottir.
Today, we cannot go anywhere without our devices. Phones have become an essential tool for banking, train tickets, and phone numbers.
Young people are using them for much more than just gaming or browsing social media, the OsloMet researcher notes.
Listening to kids and hearing their stories
That universality is not inherently good or bad, but we need thorough research to better understand its consequences.
According to Holmarsdottir, most of what we currently know about young people’s screen time comes from surveys of the adults in their lives, such as parents and teachers.
She believes that talking to youths and getting their perspectives can offer new insights into young people’s screen time usage.
Holmarsdottir uses what she calls an “ecosystem model” to understand what competencies and concerns youths have about technology.
Along with her research team DigiGen (digigen.eu), she interviews the youths and their families in their homes, observes them in groups of peers, measures their use with an app, and asks them about their participation in civic activities like voting and activism.
She has even had some of the youths in her program design their own study questions.
The role of families
One of the key things Holmarsdottir has found is how important screen time is for families.
Screens have allowed families and friend groups to stay connected through the COVID-19 pandemic and across great distances.
Technology has helped families maintain their identity through shared calendars, video chatting, and virtual game nights.
In the best conditions, online spaces can be places for young people to engage in civic activities and develop their own views and social structures.
Holmarsdottir notes that many youths feel like voting does not feel like it counts but “these movements that happen online make them feel like they have a real voice in a way that traditional politics does not”.
However, Holmarsdottir warns that there are valid concerns about technology skills and content.
Many parents are not confident in their own ability to understand how their children are spending time on their devices and are worried about exposure to inappropriate content.
Holmarsdottir compares this to teaching children the rules of crossing the street.
Parents need to lay the foundation, but it cannot be solely their responsibility. All children need to learn how to be responsible digital citizens, and it is essential to educate them about online safety, privacy, and cyberbullying.
The switch to virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed this gap in technical skills and access across the world.
Holmarsdottir found that some youths feel technically and socially unprepared to move their education and social relationships to computers and need to learn to become comfortable with these new digital tools.
Others, in particular gamers, are able to pick up these quickly and excel in these new digital spaces.
One of the great benefits of this interconnectedness is that youths can draw on their own skillsets or those of the adults in their lives to help each other, if we encourage them to do so.
Starting the conversation
The key point, says Holmarsdottir, is to engage with youths and be a part of their digital lives.
“We ask them ‘how was school’ or ‘how was basketball today?’ We need to learn to also ask them about parts of their digital lives as well: ‘How was gaming today, who was there, what did you do, what did you talk about?’”
Asking youths what they are doing with their screen time lets us know whether they are engaged in meaningful activities like creating and communicating, or just endlessly scrolling.
And if they are just endlessly scrolling, the adults in their lives should seek to find out why and address the root problems.
Holmarsdottir emphasizes the need for safe spaces for young people to use social media. Online spaces can be uplifting or expose young people to trolling and harassment.
Creating a culture of trust through open communication can help.
She says it is important to make sure we talk to young people about their online lives regularly, not just when they do something stupid or see something scary.
She and her team have developed a series of cards to help adults navigate these conversations.
“Building a healthy relationship with quality screen use helps youths get the most out of this digital era”, Holmarsdottir concludes, “and may let adults relax a little about screen time”.
DigiGen – The Impact of Technological Transformations on the Digital Generation
DigiGen aims to develop knowledge about how children and young people use and are affected by the technological transformations in their everyday lives.