Reducing Screen Time May In Fact Increase Risk Behaviour

November 4, 2021

As social media safety and digital literacy advocates, we love reviewing the good evidence-based academic peer-reviewed research when it comes to understanding how tech may be affecting us in both a negative and positive way. What we enjoy, even more, taking this research and posting about it in a way that non-academics (most parents) can read and understand.

Recently, I attended an excellent webinar titled “Minds on Media: The Associations Between Screen Engagement and Children’s Developing Brains” One of the presenters was Dr. Jason Chein (PhD) with Temple University. Dr. Chein works in the “Control & Adaptive Behaviour Laboratory” and the “Temple University Brain Research & Imaging Center”

At the beginning of Dr. Chein’s presentation, he wanted participants to be skeptical about two statements that frequently appear in the media, and are often quoted by some parents and special interest groups:

#1: “Kid’s screen-time habits are bad for the development of attention and executive functioning skills” (Executive Control), and

#2: “Technology use disrupts how kids process rewards. Kids today always expect instant gratification” (Reward Drive)

Specific to statement #1, Dr. Chein’s quoted research (Cain et al. 2016) specific to executive control that provided “correlational” evidence, not causational, that there is “some” less than desirable outcomes to impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and attention/working memory and screen use.

Specific to statement #2, Dr. Chein quoted research (Wilmer & Chein, 2016) specific to the reward drive also provided “correlational” evidence, again not causational, that there is “some” less than desirable outcomes when it comes to instant gratification, sensation seeking, and reward sensitivity and screen use.

Given the above noted, Dr. Chein stated that research has shown us that in some cases digital use can lead to “risk-taking” online behaviour in “some” youth. However, the question is, “who are the youth that are most at risk, given that the vast majority are not?”. The answer – we don’t know yet, but current research is showing us that it does appear to be a much smaller cohort than what most believe it to be.

Some parents and special interest groups believe that if too much digital media exposure can cause teens to be more vulnerable to problematic behaviour, then it only makes sense to decrease the amount of time all youth are allowed to spend online. However, according to Dr. Chein, there is a paradox to such a belief; that paradox – research has shown that “While digital media use has been going up, risky behaviours amongst youth are in fact going down”. This is something that we speak to in our webbook “Parenting In An Online World”

Dr. Chein posed an important question in his presentation that we should all pay close attention to:

“What if being riskier causes greater digital media use?”

Something that we like to call the chicken vs egg approach to screen use. Is digital technology the primary source for mental wellness challenges and risky behaviour, or is the over use of digital technology a maladaptive coping strategy for underlying conditions, such as depression or stress, that can lead to problematic online risky behaviour? We believe that current research is showing the latter. Again, something that we speak to in our webbook. Based upon Dr. Chein’s presentation, he suggests reducing screen time for “some” youth may in fact increase risk behaviour. We agree with this suggestion. For some youth who are experiencing challenges with executive attention and reward control, screen use can actually reduce anxiety, stress, and depression, which has a positive effect on their personal well-being and therefore reduces risk. Remember, it’s not how much time youth are spending online, it is what they are doing with that time that is most important!

Yes, the research does show that for “some” youth there are small correlations between executive attention, reward control challenges, and screen use. However, as Dr. Chein stated, “We need to be very cautious in making causal inferences from these observations” and more importantly, applying these causal inferences to all youth. This is such an important statement! Why, because often the media, special interest groups, and some parents/caregivers do so in an opined moral panic-based way, which is not reflected in the good evidenced-based research!

Digital Food For Thought

Darren Laur

Sources Cited

Cain, M.S., Leonard, J.A., Gabrieli, J.D.E. et al. Media multitasking in adolescence. Psychon Bull Rev 23, 1932–1941 (2016).

Wilmer, H.H., Chein, J.M. Mobile technology habits: patterns of association among device usage, intertemporal preference, impulse control, and reward sensitivity. Psychon Bull Rev 23, 1607–1614 (2016).

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