Screens, health and causality

Hal playing a game in the back of the car

‘Warning over children’s multi-screen viewing’, a BBC web site article by Katherine Sellgren from August 2011, updated today and hence came up for my attention, reports on research at Loughborough and Bristol universities. They found children (63 in Bristol) were often “multi-screen viewing” – watching TV while simultaneously using smartphones, laptops or hand-held gaming devices. Furthermore, they are reported as saying such habits are linked to obesity, poorer mental well-being and health problems in later life.

If you read their peer-reviewed published research report, the claims are somewhat softened – the health problems are concerned with adults mostly and with too much overall screen watching. And in the discussion, the reasons expressed by the 11-12 year olds give comfort – they are common-sense explanations which confirm the thirst for knowledge, activity and social communication:

“Participants reported that there were three main reasons for engaging in multi-screen viewing.”

“Firstly, it tempered impatience that was associated with a programme loading or waiting for a response to a text message or instant message. For these children the second or third screen filled the time and prevented boredom.”

“Secondly, multi-screen viewing was a reactive response that enabled the child to use their time more efficiently as they could filter out unwanted content such as advertisements and focus their attention on just the content that interested them.”

“Thirdly, multi-screen viewing was a proactive decision with the children opting to do two or more things at once as it was perceived to be more interesting or more enjoyable.”

Still, no clear certainty that the health problems are actually caused by multi-screen viewing (sad, fat people may prefer to watch television than join in team sports).

My colleague and friend Stephen Heppell discussed this issue nearly twenty years ago (!) in ‘Children of the Information Age and the Death of Text‘ – an article that first appeared in the Society of Authors’ journal “The Author” as part of a computer focused edition “The Electronic Author”, in Summer 1993.

In the article Stephen writes:

“…the TV too is typically reduced to a small information window in a larger social context – children watch it whilst browsing a magazine, listening to music, playing with their “Game Boy” or whatever.”

and that:

“We should not view this as a deficiency model of children. It is not that their concentration threshold has declined; rather, they are not happy anymore to adopt the role of passive information consumers. This is progress.”

I find it simply amazing how frequently researchers judge children’s habits as deficient before proving the causal question – is it the multi-tasking use of multiple sources of information which leads to the health and well-being issues suggested?

Might there be a connection with the food industry, dysmorphia or the ‘stranger-danger’ fear of playing outside?

How has the research shown any connection with later life?

Most importantly, why are we discussing passive ‘screen viewing‘ as being the predominant interaction in the contexts described when modern mobile technology is all about active choices, games, social communication and creativity?

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