Online Safety Advocates Can Sometimes Do More Harm Than Good

April 24, 2019


We here at The White Hatter do believe, and evidence-based research supports our belief, that the quality rather than the quantity of screen time use is relevant no matter what the age. It’s not how much time one spends online, it’s what are they doing with that time that is most important. This is especially true for very young children. If parents are using screen time, no matter what its form, as a digital pacifier, they are doing a huge disservice to their child as it is nothing more than digital bubble gum for the brain. However, if they are using screen time in reasonable time blocks as an adjunct to learning, it can often be beneficial. [1] Think Sesame Street vs. Sponge Bob Square Pants. As an internet safety and digital literacy company, we use current, peer-reviewed research available when designing our programs. Facts matter, and unfortunately, some in our industry will continue to promote disingenuous content that only creates further parental moral panic based upon inaccurate or skewed information, thus the reason for this article. We apologize for the sometimes-heavy academic content of this posting, but it needs to be so in order to support our position.

One thing that I have learned from my son, Brandon, is that many studies that are reported in the media don’t truly reflect the reality of research reports. Recently, a fellow Canadian social media safety advocate has posted this article from the Globe and Mail [2].

What is very interesting to me is that I doubt this presenter read the actual study that can be located here: [3]

Now, for those of you who don’t like reading the academic and scientific nature of such studies, I bring to your attention the following important paragraph from the authors, and I have underlined some of the important points they make:


One of the limitations of this current study is that screen-time, sleep, and physical activity, were parent-reported and not validated against objective measures. We only had repeated screen-time and behavior data available for a sub-sample of our cohort (n = 367) which limited our ability to determine directionality. As such, it is possible parents may respond to children who exhibit externalizing behavior difficulties by offering more screen-time or using increased opportunity for screen-time as a self-soothing strategy. Although we identified prior studies in school-aged children that have shown a significant association between screen-time and inattention while controlling for earlier attention problems. We were also not able to determine if the media content (e.g. educational, video gaming, social media), or screen type (television, computer, tablet) were important predictors of behavioral morbidity. For example, the UK Millennium Cohort Study showed that television exposure (but not gaming) above three-hours/day at age five was significantly associated with conduct behavior problems by age seven years. The sample of 2,447 children included in our analysis, overall, represented a higher SES, an older maternal age, were more likely to be of Caucasian compared to the general population. As a result, our findings may not be generalizable to other populations and should be replicated. Over 84% of our sample met the recommended ten to thirteen-hours of sleep for a preschool child limiting our ability to examine the impact of sleep duration on behavior.”

I would like to deal with each one of the underlined sections:

#1) “…were parent-reported and not validated against objective measures.”

Very recently in the scientific community, self-reporting studies have come under significant academic scrutiny as being highly inaccurate. As Dr. Patrick Markey, a highly regarded researcher in the area of social media and its effects on us humans, states, “Almost all research examining the harmful effects of social media (SM) have used self-reports of SM. But new research has found such self-reports are hardly related to actual SM use. In fact, the average correlation between self and actual is about .2. What does a correlation of .2 mean? No researcher would ever agree that a correlation of .2 is ok if two assessments are supposed to be measuring the same thing.[4]

#2) “…it is possible parents may respond to children who exhibit externalizing behavior difficulties by offering more screen-time or using increased opportunity for screen-time as a self-soothing strategy.”

I actual speak to this fact in our presentations, and how parents share this fact with us all the time. We just helped one family who says it’s the only way they can create “me time” in their very busy lives.

#3) “We were also not able to determine if the media content (e.g. educational, video gaming, social media), or screen type (television, computer, tablet) were important predictors of behavioral morbidity.”

In other words, they were not able to separate how much time was being spent on these devices and for how long and for what purpose. So we don’t know if the majority of screen time was associated with a TV or a computer screen.

Another important point to notice is that the Globe article’s headline is “Children who have more than two hours of screen time daily are more likely to display ADHD symptoms, study says.” This click bait headline intimates a “causation” that screen time can cause ADHD. The actual title of the scientific article is “Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study.” BIG difference. In fact, nowhere in the actual research do the authors use the word “cause.” They specifically identified what they believe to be a correlation to inattention problems. Again, a BIG difference.

I’m also confident that when these researchers submitted their research for publication in 2018 for publication, they were unaware of this research [5] (couldn’t find it in their references) that was published this year in one of the largest longitudinal cohort studies of its kind from Oxford, where researchers found, “examining data from over 300,000 teenagers and parents in the UK and USA. At most, only 0.4% of adolescent wellbeing is related to screen use—which only slightly surpasses the negative effect of regularly eating potatoes. Or this research [6] where they found that “results indicated that social media use was not predictive of impaired mental health functioning. However, vaguebooking was predictive of suicidal ideation, suggesting this particular behavior could be a warning sign for serious issues.”

Also, in the Globe article it is reported that this new research supports the Canadian Pediatrics’ position on screen time, but yet later in the article it states, “Michelle Ponti, a London, Ont., pediatrician who chairs the Canadian Pediatric Society’s digital health task force and was not involved in the new study, said some of its findings should be taken with a grain of salt.” Why does he say this? Because the British Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, the first pediatrics organization in the world to suggest screen time limits, which Canada adopted, has now changed its position [7] and most of the other pediatric organizations around the world are following these leaders.

So, what does this all mean?

#1) Based upon the best research out there to date, screen time has little effect on the mental health functioning of our youth. Screen time doesn’t cause ADHD, what the good research shows us that we are born with it there is a difference [8]. Having said this, parents should be alive to the fact that they should not be using technology as a “digital babysitter” or “digital pacifier” which only acts like digital bubblegum for the brain. At young ages, organize screen time into reasonable limits that meet your family’s needs and beliefs and use it as an adjunct to learning. Again, the Sesame Street (positive learning) vs Sponge Bob Square Pants (bubblegum for the brain) analogy applies.

#2) Don’t believe the click bait headlines that many news articles will use to draw attention to a hot topic. Dig deeper and reach out to those who actually believe in evidence-based social media safety and digital literacy programs. Knowledge and the understanding, application, and implementation of that knowledge is power.

Digital Food for Thought

Darren Laur










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