It is time to reframe the term ‘screen time’ and how this temporal unit is interpreted.
Technology, in all its forms, will continue to present challenges to the individual and to society as a whole. With its permanence and influence comes criticism and a range of perspectives that debate how beneficial its role is. Assessing its efficacy must acknowledge that under the umbrella term of ICT falls a range of functions that do not necessarily operate or contribute to learning in similar ways. Therefore, it would be misguided to dismiss or laud ICT so broadly when it is the specifics that contribute to its role within the learning landscape. Discussion needs to move beyond quantifying all technology use as screen time, without acknowledging that this term can denote both positive and negative interactions with technology. An analogy between calories and a healthy diet can be made with hours on the screen and appropriate time with devices. In nutrition, all humans require calories to survive. This unit of energy can provide the nutritional information relating to the calories associated with a chocolate bar or a carrot. They both contain calories, yet it would be broadly known that the carrot is a far better source of kilojoules for the individual. The individual can seek to consume calories in whatever form their tastes will dictate. Advice can be offered by professionals and scientific research indicates which foodstuffs provide the most beneficial nutrition, yet the individual must have agency over what they consume.
Similarly, screen time is something that applies to all those who have access to a digital device. In 2019, this encompasses around 97% of the Australian population. Debate abounds over what the appropriate amount of screen time is for children and adults, as well as at what age the number of minutes or hours of access should increase and how this is qualified. Yet, this widely used term should be considered similarly to the term calories, where it denotes a broader concept that has more specific intricacies pertaining to its real meaning. Just as there are good and bad calories, so too exists good and bad units of time spent on the screen. It is therefore neither effective or descriptive to use the blanket term ‘screen time’ when discussing how technology use should be moderated. An hour spent researching for an assignment is not tantamount to an hour spent watching cat videos, if that hour is meant to be contributing to academic outcomes. Yet, an hour on social media and conversing with friends might be considered productive if it is part of the individual’s way of connecting and socialising with others when perhaps other factors preclude these interactions from taking place offline. Our digital diets vary, significantly, just as our other needs do. Just like a nutrition plan, or the occasional cheat meal, so too should screen time be approached with a level of flexibility and interpretation that steers away from any blanket statements or advice based upon a ‘one size fits all’ model.
Screen time does not necessarily need to have objectives for it to be effective, nor does it need to have arbitrary time limits associated with it for it to be detrimental. Appropriate use is contextual and should determine how teachers, parents and policy makers moderate its use, as opposed to merely mandating a certain number of hours per day and then not specifying how these hours of screen time are actually used.