We’ve just finished watching “Scorpion” on Netflix. It has been fairly formulaic – which might be why after four seasons it was cancelled – but it was great fun. Here is the formula :

Team of geniuses are employed to stop or fix or resolve some kind of “world ending” catastrophe // It goes well to begin with // Then they make it worse // Then they make it much, much worse // Then one of the characters, Happy, says, “Not Good” as the team stares at an abyss of their own making // With 3 minutes until the end of life as we know it Scorpion comes good and saves everyone and everything with a bit of tape and a staple gun.

As I read a couple of articles about children and screen time, one from the BBC (“Worry Less about children’s screen time, parents told”) and one from The Guardian (“Don’t Fall for the Moral Panic over screen time”) I’m inclined to shout “NOT GOOD!

Why? Because we appear to be staring in to an abyss of our own making – and, with confusing messages being put out in the media, making the situation worse. Not Good.

The so called “experts” suggest we should not be bothered about children’s screen time . . . and then go on to make recommendations for how parents might manage or control it. I’m sorry, but if there is “no problem” what is the need for control?

In the BBC article I refer to above, the opening statement is this,

There is little evidence screen use is harmful in itself, guidance from leading paediatricians says.

BBC “Worry Less About Screen Time” Article

The muddle of conflicting statements and observations from the experts then follows,

Experts say it is important that the use of a device does not replace sleep, exercising and time with family.

BBC “Worry Less About Screen Time” Article

Wow. I mean, if I didn’t have an expert telling me this I don’t know what I’d do! But, seriously, if they think this needed to be said they either have a very low opinion of parents and their ability to parent their children or screen use does have the potential to be all consuming.

The “Guidelines” offered by the experts don’t limit screen time, rather they offer a series of questions for families to ask :

Is your family’s screen time under control?
Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
Does screen use interfere with sleep?
Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

BBC “Worry Less About Screen Time” Article

Again, in these questions, there is a confusing tone if we are to “worry less” about screen time. “Under control” suggests that screen time could get out of control if not . . . controlled!

Then, the guidelines offered encourage parents to “negotiate” with their children about screen time. I’m sorry, but as a parent, screen time isn’t going to be a negotiation! I’ve written about the impact of social media on children, in particularly with reference to “Life in Likes“, a report by the Children’s Commissioner. You can see that [here].

There is in that report, as in this latest look at all the current evidence, a resigned tone – as a professor interviewed by Radio 4 put it, “the genie is out of the bottle – we cannot put it back.

Essentially – children and young people are going to be on devices – we are being told to live with that and effectively bargain with children to limit the damage of excessive screen time.

Lots of screen time, especially in relation to social media has an impact on children and young peoples wellbeing – the evidence for this is clear. We seem to have a fear about two things ::

Setting boundaries and teaching discernment.

We know, when our children are small, we need to instruct them about things they do not yet know (for example, fire burns!) The challenge we have with setting boundaries in the context of screens and devices is we may have let things run away from us . . . devices are ubiquitous and our kids know more about how they work and what they can do than many parents. To then find ourselves in a place where we are having to pull things back would suggest we have not set boundaries (or tried to) until after the event – It is a common scene – unfortunately, to see people out with their children – in a cafe or restaurant, where each person – rather than engaging with each other, is sat on a device. Not just the children! That is desperately sad.

What is worse, is seeing very young children – often still in prams, being entertained by a parents phone or iPad while the oblivious parent engages their friends in conversation. It had become the equivalent of a pacifier, a dummy.

The cultural norm has become “to be on a device”. There are no boundaries, and these guidelines offer none. “Negotiating” with children is not teaching them discernment – yes, of course, we need the active participation and engagement of young people in decisions that impact them – but we have to be teaching in that process, not negotiating. The Apostle Paul doesn’t have “devices” in mind when he writes,

Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything.

1 Corinthians 6:12

This is what we need to teach. What does “moderation” look like in relation to our devices? Are we being honest about the impact it is having to be constantly available, constantly “online”, constantly “checking” our messages – are our devices helpful tools – do they serve us, or are we serving them?

The mental health of children and young people is suffering – read the “Life in Likes” report mentioned above; families are suffering – evidence from the Children’s Society shows that the greatest impact on a child’s wellbeing is the closeness they feel to their parents. See the latest Children’s Society report [here].

That closeness will not be fostered while parents and children sit in the same house – even in the same room – but while being physically present are engaged in the ether of the internet. We need more than muddled guidelines that aren’t clear or robust enough – maybe if we worried more about screen time, not less – we would start to make the changes we need.