President-Elect’s Column: Will Social Distancing Change Our Perception of Screens?

Christopher J. Ferguson

Christopher J. Ferguson

Christopher J. Ferguson
cjfergus@stetson.edu

We are all facing crazy uncertain times. Our specific circumstances may be different … perhaps working from home, trying to manage restless and cranky kids stuck with virtual schools while maintaining some sense of sanity. Or perhaps more critically, worrying where the rent or money for food will come from or dealing with illness in our families or ourselves. We can only hope this moment will pass us by as quickly as possible.

As media psychologists, we know that media has become more important than ever for many people. News media is a source of information on the course of the illness, though perhaps there’s such a thing as becoming too obsessive over the news when it’s mostly bad. Screens also have demonstrated their utility in keeping people socially engaged and giving them a sense of control over fictional universes when control over our real life has palpably decreased.

For decades, policymakers, advocates, and some scholars have terrorized parents over the supposed evils of screens. As with most things, screens are healthy when balanced with other needs and responsibilities. Until recently, though, screens were described almost as if they were poison with toxic doses if certain arbitrary limits were exceeded (e.g. Bowles, 2016). Things have slowly changed over the last decade but, perhaps, not fast enough.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2016) dropped maximum screen times for most kids (the notorious “2 hours a day” limit), which was good. The 2-hour rule was unrealistic and not based in good evidence. The AAP still maintains limits for younger kids, but even these are controversial given lack of clear empirical evidence for them and are widely ignored. They likely do little more than to foster guilt in parents who can’t live up to unrealistic standards.

This year the American Psychological Association (APA) took a baby step toward rationality in finally acknowledging clearly that action video games can’t be linked to criminal violence (see Ferguson, 2020). The APA remains stubborn in linking action games to milder aggression (which they don’t define) despite increasing evidence that such links don’t exist. I am proud of our Division 46 for taking a leadership role on this issue, writing an open letter (see Committee Reports, this issue) to the APA Council expressing concern that the APA’s position on games and aggression misrepresent the research literature. As evidence continues to accumulate that the APA’s position on aggression is wrong, hopefully, they’ll reconsider more fully.

Despite all the historical fearmongering over screens, the isolation of social distancing will inevitably bring many to reconsider their relationship with screens. The appeal of screens, aside from being fun, always had to do with getting needs met that were difficult to get met in real life. These include social needs, those related to autonomy and control and competence, the classic needs of Self-Determination Theory.

At present, it’s simply difficult to get any social needs met other than through screens. Indeed, overdoing with restricting screens at this time could do more harm than good. Both us and our kids need screens to stay in touch, maintain relationships, and connect with others. This may be particularly true for youth who are developmentally pulling away from parents and need to socialize with peers.

Screens can also help us with a sense of control. Most of us are going to experience some degree of feeling like events are beyond our control. The social order has drastically changed … we can’t even be sure if we’ll be able to buy toilet paper! In video games, we can occupy a fictional world and our decisions within that fiction can have a real impact on the game setting and other characters. The videogames can give us an outlet where we can feel as if we have some control while world events slip beyond our grasp. And we should not diminish the ability of fun games to distract us from our woes. Escapism isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Naturally, even now, screen use should be balanced with other things. We should try to get regular exercise, get adequate sleep, and meet our work/school requirements. Beyond that, we can largely relax when it comes to screen use for ourselves and our kids. If screens can keep us away from the virus and reasonably sane, then they are a powerful force for good.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use. Retrieved from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

Bowles, N. (2018). A dark consensus about screens and kids begins to emerge in Silicon Valley. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/style/phones-children-silicon-valley.html

Ferguson, C. J. (2020). The American Psychological Association keeps getting the science of video games wrong. Arc Digital. Retrieved from: https://arcdigital.media/the-american-psychological-association-keeps-getting-the-science-of-video-games-wrong-b1539971fbd

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