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Letting go of parent guilt over screen time

New research has found that screen time has little impact on parent-child relationship satisfaction. (Jamie Grill / Tetra images RF) New research has found that screen time has little impact on parent-child relationship satisfaction. (Jamie Grill / Tetra images RF)
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The intersection of kids and screen time is causing quite a stir among parents, experts and even the U.S. Surgeon General (who wants social media apps labeled) these days.

Earlier this year, a New York University social psychologist published a best-selling book about the supposed dangers of smart phones and social media for kids before a certain age. Others have responded saying screen time isn’t so bad—so long as it’s in moderation.

But what about the guilt parents feel from letting their kids use screens? That’s the subject of recent research by Dr. Nathan Walter, associate professor of media psychology at Northwestern University, and two coauthors. Their research focused parental guilt over letting their kids use screens more than developmental psychologists say they should.

The research was published earlier this year in the journal Media Psychology.

Not surprisingly, parents who feel guilty about their kids’ screen use are more stressed and less likely to report positive relationships with their kids, according to the data.

The research also suggested that it’s important to take a closer look at the science behind claims about the negative impact of screens—since some studies show correlation but not causation.

CNN recently talked with Walter about his research, how parents can change their thinking about kids’ screen use, and the impact of screen time guilt on the family system.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity

CNN: At a time when experts are clamoring for less screen time, what inspired you to look into the idea of parental guilt?

Dr. Nathan Walter: I have two kids, and when my oldest was born, we followed all the recommendations, no screen time until a certain age. When she was a little bit older, around 2, we used to sit with her and watch and explain and mediate everything to her.

When my son was born a few years later, we were just at a different place, a bit busier, a bit more tired, and he was exposed to screens much more than she was, especially early on. I felt enormous guilt—like I was failing as a parent. I also felt like a hypocrite because, as a communications professor, I was teaching classes on media effects, and here I’m presenting on the negative effects of screen use to my students who are 18, 19 and 20 years old. My coauthors had similar experiences.

Because we also study emotions, my coauthors and I were interested to know what’s the role that guilt plays in the negative effects of screen time. One of the things we found: Most of the evidence that we have around screen use is correlational. It’s just associations with social problems, obesity and lower academic performance. It’s difficult to know whether screen use actually causes all these issues. And the fact that two things are associated could simply mean that there’s a third factor involved, such as, say, socioeconomic status.

If your parents work three jobs, they don’t have a lot of time to spend with you at home, so you are with screens and also your academic performance may suffer. Covid was a great opportunity to examine the effects of screen time and the idea that emotions could play a bigger role.

CNN: As you looked deeper into the impact of screen time on kids, what did you find?

Walter: Associations don’t allow researchers to make causal inferences. More important, the perfect study does not exist. If you want to cherry-pick evidence, the literature is so broad that you’ll be able to find anything that you want. This is why the greatest value that we have in terms of evidence comes from what we call meta-analyses.

A recent meta-analysis looked at 18 cohort studies with almost 250,000 participants. They wanted to know the relationship between screen time and depression, which is one of the major concerns that we have around screen time. They found no meaningful relationship there. Certain subgroups, certain ages, certain screens—there was connection some of the time, but not all the time, and not across the board.

Another meta-analysis looked at the relationship between screen time and executive functioning skills. This one was 7,000 kids. There was absolutely no relationship between these cognitive problems and screen use.

Every time we looked into it, there was association but not causation. Another meta-analysis had 100,000 participants and looked at academic performance. Again, many different ages, many different screens, many different kids and absolutely no relationship between screen time and academic performance across all these studies. If you isolate video games among certain ages, that is negatively associated with academic performance, but these are not the little kids that we think about when we’re thinking about screen use. So that tells us that it’s a little bit more complicated.

CNN: What do you think is happening?

Walter: There’s nothing inherently negative about screen time or screen use, but just like any other media, it displaces other activities. So, when you’re at home with your screen, you’re not outside making social relationships with kids. When you’re at home with your screen, you’re not in the playground playing.

Again, this is more about the replacement—the trade-offs between screen use and other activities that generate many of the negative effects we see—as opposed to something more inherent. If this is the case and we need to understand this in a broader context of trade-offs, why not consider also emotional trade-offs? This is basically our research. Let’s look at the emotional trade-offs that happen because of how stigmatized screen use has become in our society.

CNN: Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, recently published a book encouraging parents to keep their kids off phones completely until the age of 13. How do you reconcile your findings with those recommendations?

Walter: Some screens may have some effects on some children some of the time. And it’s true that if you want to isolate specific groups, specific media and specific content, you can always find those effects. It’s also true that if we zoom out a little bit more and understand that screen use happens in a particular context, I think the emotional effects are also very important.

I don’t want to create an atmosphere where screen use for kids is perceived to be uniformly bad and negative. I don’t like to look at the issue of screen use as binary, as acceptable or not acceptable. I’m just advocating for a little bit more nuance in how we talk about the negative associations.

Our findings don’t really challenge what (Dr. Haidt) is saying. Our findings are more about the certainty with which these things are being said and the perception that it creates in the public about screens. What we see in our research is that screen time has almost no effect on parent-child relationship satisfaction, which has been shown to be associated with health and other important factors. Yet parents still feel guilty when their kids use screens.

CNN: How can parents stave off that guilt? How can parents approach screen time for their kids with a different perspective?

Walter: It’s important to note that all these meta-analyses that I mentioned earlier find basically no effects for thresholds. So, time limits (with screens) are not a factor. Each family is going to have a different threshold anyway. In our study—and again, the context was Covid—data indicated we were all basically just glued to our screens, including our kids. The average that we saw in terms of daily use was around four hours.

Was that (amount of time) good? Was that bad? That’s not exactly what the study was about. The study was about parent-child relationship satisfaction. We did not see screens impacting that. Yet living in this reality where, as a parent, you constantly feel like screens are terrible and you are a bad parent if your kids use screens—that can weigh on you.

If you’re a parent and you’re feeling guilty, try to read more about screens and their effects. Try to read more balanced and transparent reviews that say, ‘There’s a lot we don’t know,’ and, ‘There’s so much uncertainty around this issue. Although you can cherry-pick a study or 10 studies that show exactly what you want to show—for or against screen use—when you get the bird’s eye view of the entire corpus of work, there’s just so many questions. To think of screens as something that is inherently negative is not very accurate.

CNN: What is the trickle-down impact of parents feeling guilt over screen time?

Walter: We started this research hypothesizing that increased screen use by kids would increase the amount of guilt felt by parents, and that, in turn, will have a negative effect on the parent-child dynamic. But what we found time and time again is that the amount of screen time in terms of hours has very little influence on guilt. It’s almost like guilt is divorced from the actual number of hours. As parents, we just feel bad about it.

CNN: What’s the prescription here? How can parents manage this guilt?

Walter: The prescription is not so much about how much screen you should or shouldn’t let your kids use, but rather how we should talk about screen time. Let’s not stigmatize kids who use screens. Let’s not stigmatize parents who allow their kids to use screens.

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