CBC documentary explores childhood development amid increased screen use

Dan Riskin hosts Kids vs. Screens, taking viewers on a journey of how they are affecting children. (Courtesy of Jill Spitz, publicist for Kids Vs. Screens)

It’s likely you’ve seen, or at least heard of, the popular new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which explores the impacts of social media on our society. But what The Social Dilemma doesn’t explore is how screens are impacting the neurological development of kids. That is where Kids vs. Screens, the latest installment of CBC’s The Nature of Things, comes into the picture.

The documentary takes York alumnus, television host, and father, Dan Riskin, on a journey of exploring just how screens are affecting kids today. Riskin became involved with the documentary when he began to question how the iPads around the house are having an impact on his nine-year-old son, and six-year-old twins. “It’s wonderful, but it’s too wonderful — the kids love it too much.” 

In his household, Riskin says they have established a “set of very stiff rules about what they are allowed to do,” but admits that they are improvising in this territory. “We have no idea about what is a good amount of time, or when they should use it or what they should be allowed to do. You can go to parenting websites, but it’s just advice from people who say they are experts,” he says. 

That is when he approached CBC to create this documentary. According to Riskin, CBC was already in the process of creating this with producer Leora Eisen, whom Riskin teamed up with to create the documentary. Kids vs. Screens brings forward the questions of mental health, neurological development, and addiction attributed to screens, all through the lenses of experts and kids themselves.

Of those featured in the film, Abby Jones is a 13-year-old living in Denver, Colorado and she talks about her struggles with being addicted to screens. But the question of whether to call it an addiction is something that researchers in the documentary seem to disagree on.

“Amy Orben, in the United Kingdom, is making the argument that just because it causes you to release the pleasure chemicals in your brain doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, because exercise does that too,” Riskin says. “What really struck me, talking to Michael Cheng, who is a child psychiatrist in Ottawa, is what he said. If the device is interfering with your life, then that is an addiction. That is how you make that definition.”

“The screen itself isn’t what is causing the problem. What is causing problems, especially in young kids, is the absence of somebody else.”

Along with the addiction aspect comes the neurological development aspect — a large part of what the documentary explores. According to the documentary, studies have been performed that show weaker brain structure and lower cognitive testing scores in relation to the amount of screen time a child gets. 

But, according to Riskin, through researching this topic, he’s learned that it isn’t necessarily the screen that is at fault, but rather, the lack of human interaction that comes alongside using screens. “The screen itself isn’t what is causing the problem. What is causing problems, especially in young kids, is the absence of somebody else.”

Referring to Sheri Madigan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, and Canada research chair in early childhood development, Riskin explains that development depends on human interaction through the analogy of a tennis game. “There’s this idea of a tennis game where the baby makes a noise, and you, as the parent, react,” he says. “At every stage there is a ball being passed back and forth.”

Riskin adds, “The kid’s brain develops faster when it has that back and forth, and so the screens don’t provide that, and that is where screens provide this deficit.”

Now, in the reality of COVID-19 where the world has begun to rely heavily on technology to interact, concerns are raised on how to mitigate the detriments of screen time.

“All of a sudden everyone was stuck in their house and you need your screens because that is how you do school, and that’s how you interact with your friends, and that’s how you talk to grandma, and screens really became a lifeline for people, so it sort of highlighted that they’re not all bad,” Riskin says.

Professor and Canada Research Chair in Youth, Education & Global Good Kate Tilleczek says that there are important questions to ask in order to begin exploringhow childhood development is being impacted by screens. “What are the reaches and limits of these technologies and the ways of living that they direct? This is the time of deep reckoning with digital technology and evidence supporting real concerns is amassing.

“Virtual education is more hotly debated than ever as to whether and how it delivers on promises to increase access, address inequality and enhance quality learning, educational relationships, and environments for youth.”

“There is no doubt that COVID-19 has provided a new moment for reflection on this as most of life’s activities for children and youth have moved online,” Tilleczek says. “The wider population, educators, youth-serving agencies, and researchers are talking about this turn constantly – we see it in daily news media and are beginning to see it from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on a global level.”

Our world is now at a time where many children have never experienced life without technology — a point Riskin and Tilleczek both note. “It really is time-dependent in the sense that there is no group of kids growing up right now that doesn’t have devices,” Riskin says.

“Generation Z, the first generation to have had technology at their fingertips since birth, also place technology second to experiential and face-to-face education. Virtual education is more hotly debated than ever as to whether and how it delivers on promises to increase access, address inequality and enhance quality learning, educational relationships, and environments for youth,” Tilleczek adds. 

In the COVID-19 world, Riskin says experts agree the information still holds. “A lot of the things researchers were saying are still held, so what makes screens dangerous for developing kids is still dangerous,” he says. “A lot of families needed to lean on that just a little bit more, and so it sort of raised the stakes, but it didn’t change the landscape with how kids’ brains react to those devices.”

With classes moving online, Tilleczek says there is evidence to support that education may be suffering due to online learning. “There were already (before COVID-19) research reports about how technology in itself is not sufficient to ensure the engagement of young learners: ‘it isn’t technology per se that makes learning engaging; it is the learning activity’ and therefore one trap for educators is ‘venerating technology’ rather than the learning process or solid educational theory.

“You give them a phone to play with for a few seconds at the check-out line at the supermarket, and then the whole way home you wonder if you just messed up their SAT scores.”

“In addition, lower student grades and lack of personal contentment have been attributed to virtual learning environments. Critically, when student outcomes are similar for in-person and virtual courses, students with weak academic preparation and those from low-income and under-represented backgrounds consistently underperform in fully-online environments. Success rates are lower and employers, students, faculty, academic leaders, and the public attribute lower value to online than to classroom degrees,” Tilleczek adds.

With regards to what needs to be done moving forward for Canadians, Tilleczek has one thing to say: “Canada needs a clear and concise statement that weaves together the evidence and guides parents and kids,” which according to Tilleczek, is currently being explored by nonprofit Tech-For-Good Canada.

When asked about whether neurological development may be impacted for kids later in life, Riskin says that is just something experts are trying to figure out. “The question of what happens if a kid has an iPad at home when they are pre-kindergarten and what that does to their high school performance — that just hasn’t been done. We don’t know yet. So people are working on trying to find the answers to those questions and theoretical ideas,” Riskin says. 

Riskin adds that the uncertainty surrounding screens is what makes it scary. “You give them a phone to play with for a few seconds at the check-out line at the supermarket, and then the whole way home you wonder if you just messed up their SAT scores,” Riskin jokes.

“There’s no question that there’s a risk there may be some developmental key that is missing, but I haven’t seen the data to show that if you have too much screen time at the age of X, you are definitely doomed. You definitely see correlations over two or three years, but we haven’t seen anything long term,” he adds. “Researchers are trying to design the experiments and figure out the answer.”

Watch Kids vs. Screens here.

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By Victoria Silman

Managing Editor

managing@excal.on.ca

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