There is an inevitable predictability that, as each new year arrives, so does a flurry of emotive and provocative media proclamations about the perils of modern living. It seems this creep of attention grabbing articles on the urgent need for us to overhaul our eating, exercise and lifestyle routines with radical new year resolutions is now extending to target our children and young people like never before.
Before we even have the time to pack away the decorations and sweep up the pine needles, this new year kicked off with the release of a report from the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH) which oversees the training in child medicine. Their research found there to be no good evidence that time in front of a screen – be that television, phone or tablet- is toxic to the health of children and young people. Whilst the report drew some connections between prolonged screen time and an increase in instances of obesity and depression, the College resisted calls to publish recommended screen times for children of different ages and at different stages of development. Choosing pragmatism over definitives, advice from the College focused upon encouraging families and schools to consider the nature of the relationship a child has with screens, the way they connect with social media and the impact this relationship has upon the quality of their sleep and their rate of regular physical exercise.
Responses to the publication of this straight-talking and easy-to-digest report have been polarised and, in many cases, has resulted in a blurring of the messages put out to parents, carers and educators of young people. A simple google search on this subject reveals a cacophony of different views on whether the findings of the report should be heralded or reviled. Calls for screens to be demonised and purged from the lives of our children and young people for fears it stifles creativity and promotes social isolation, anxiety and depression sit at odds with opposing calls to embrace the opportunities offered by the digital revolution. Those responsible for educating and raising children can be excused for not knowing what action to take for those in their charge when the messages are so mixed, so emotive and, in some cases, extreme. Take Athena Chavarria for example, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children” and contrast it with views expressed by Amy Orben in the Guardian on the same matter: “The common comparison between screen time and drugs like alcohol indicates a misconception many politicians and journalists share. Screen time isn’t a chemical that, when ingested, causes concrete physiological changes that can harm the body and cause long-term dependency.” The collateral effect of the noise around issues that drive our lifestyles and those of our children is that many people either disengage from the matter in hand altogether or adopt a fixed, binary position which does not offer the flex required to meet the needs of those for whom they are responsible. There is no doubt both scenarios result in a lose/lose outcome.
As leader of a Prep School for girls and a part of the Girls’ Days School Trust, I am particularly perturbed and frustrated with this tendency towards extreme reportng and a fanning of the flames of emotional hyperbole when dealing with issues that affect the women of tomorrow. Our growing understanding that girls are twice as likely to show signs of depressive symptoms linked to social media use at age 14 compared with boys should be treated sensitively and without drama. Girls and young women deserve us to respond to such matters with the integrity and measure to allow the best course of action and approach to be discerned rationally. It is only by setting an example of pragmatism now that we can set a tone for the dispositions of self-awareness and self-knowledge to develop in girls and young women as they move into adulthood.
As Dr Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH, puts it, “screens are part of modern life. The genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back”. So as we commit to new year resolutions and make lifestyle choices for 2019, let’s pledge ourselves to a mantra of moderation. A life lived in extremes is a sure fire way to unhappiness and discontentment. Choose moderation this year. Choose space to consider what works best for each individual. Choose opportunities to cultivate a discerning approach to decision making and watch as your wellbeing, and that of the young people you care for, flourishes.
Screen Sensations: How to Grow a Mantra of Moderation this Year
Consider the following questions published by the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health (RCPCH):
- Is your family’s screen time under control?
- Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
- Does screen time interfere with sleep?
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
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Prep - 26 March
Senior - 19 March, 2 May