The media in our children’s lives – have our views changed? Professor Dafna Lemish

This is a reflection written by Professor Dafna Lemish, Professor and Associate Dean at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, for the new series from The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace on Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

It was only a few months ago when the most dominant theme in public discourse about children’s use of media was alarm over the amount of time spent with them. The non-profit organization Common Sense Media surveys provided us reliable data on the growing number of hours children and teens spend in front of screens, and measures such as the consistent decline in the age children own their own smart phones that facilitate their engagement with social media. “Screen time” has become a phrase employed in popular as well as some academic outlets to warn parents and educators that it displaces healthier, more essential activities needed for proper development and wellbeing, such as school-related assignments, outdoor activities, and social engagement.  

Too much “screen time” has become associated in the public imagination with many societal ills – social alienation, growing anxiety and depression, substance abuse, obesity, and just plain idle waste of time. For example, Jean Twenge’s article in the September 2017 issue The Atlantic,  entitled –  Has the smartphone destroyed a generation?, claims: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades.  Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” 

Such provocative analyses have stimulated significant debates and attracted much criticism; see, for example, Vicky Rideout’s commentary in a blog on Parenting for a Digital Future. One outcome of this debate is that it uncovered deep cultural anxieties over children’s media use. Historically, this is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, since the advent of print in the 15th century, the introduction of each new medium to society has been received with duality of fear of its potential negative effects on young generations together with hope for its emancipatory powers and promise for a better society (Lemish, 2015).

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the table on the pros and cons of children’s screen time in a very short period of time. In circumstances of “sheltering at home” around the world, suddenly media have become a lifeline for children (as well as adults). In turn, our normative understandings have been reversed: rather than media competing with schooling – they become the main tools for schooling; rather than media exacerbating social isolation and alienation – they facilitate social connectivity; rather than media being associated with declining mental health – they are now the channels that promote our mental stability and resilience. In doing so, media have become the main source of information about what is happening outside one’s home; they provide an endless stream of entertainment that allows various forms of escapism, diversion, and relaxation; are among the primary tools for maintaining children’s engagement in formal schooling; as well as, enabling them to stay connected with friends and family members. 

Initial reporting suggests that under these circumstances, many parents have relaxed their “screen time” rules and expectations (Dubit, 2020). Children (and families) are spending more time with media. But perhaps not surprisingly – they are also spending more time with each other, inventing new games and activities, seizing every opportunity to go outside and engage in physical activities. 

In considering this shift, we remind ourselves that there are no – and couldn’t be – very clear cut rules about how much screen time is appropriate. Rather, I believe that we are better off focusing on three domains, summarized by the three Cs of media use by children (as outlined in my op-ed in the Star Ledger on 2 April, 2020):

  • The Child: Since each child is unique, their gender, age, ability and personality characteristics may need different content and activities. 
  • The Content: The content each child is watching, playing with or surfing on screens matters. It should be age-appropriate, fit the family’s values, and affect the child emotionally, socially, cognitively, and behaviorally in positive ways. 
  • The Context: Family context makes a difference on how media are used. Viewed globally as well as within each nation, general societal contexts these days certainly impact children’s media use, often dramatically. But so, too, the number and locations of devices in each home, as well as number of family members sharing them. Additionally, our cultural, religious, racial, class, and immigration backgrounds make a difference.

As we are reconsidering the role of media in children’s lives as a result of our COVID-19 experiences and thinking of the challenges ahead in this area, the focus of the conversation may be shifting in at least two directions (pointed out also by others, such as Sonia Livingstone, 13 May 2020). First, digital inequalities have been exposed clearly during this crisis as a symptom of many deep structural social inequalities: Inequalities of ownership of media and access to internet and streaming services; inequalities created by living conditions that do not allow for proper/desired media use; and inequalities of digital literacy, knowledge and skills for making the best use of media.

The second concern is with potential abuse and exploitation that come hand-in-hand with increasing media use. Big tech companies’ ability to collect children’s private information and the constant surveillance and monetizing of their activities (issues that were gaining growing awareness before the COVID-19 crisis) need to come front and center in academic and public discourses. Our efforts to design policy safeguards, self-regulation of industry practices, educational digital-literacy programs, parental awareness and supervision – need to intensify dramatically so the “reclaimed” potential benefits of media use by children will not become also a bigger threat to their wellbeing. 

Additional References 

Dubit (2020). Kids and media in the time of corona. Unpublished report, April 24, 2020. London: Dubit.

Lemish, D. (2015). Children and media: A global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

You can watch Professor Lemish’s lecture for the Baha’i Chair here.

About the Author: 

Dafna Lemish is a Distinguished Professor and Associate Dean at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, the founding editor of the Journal of Children and Media, and a Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA). She is author and editor of numerous books and articles on children, media, and gender.

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