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Are Our Fears About Screens More Harmful Than Screens?

You’ve heard about FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), right? There’s another harm caused by our screens that isn’t receiving the attention that it should. I have an acronym for it that I’m introducing right here: FOSH. FOSH stands for the Fear of Screen Harm.

There has been much written about the harms caused by screens, and I include myself here. I have written a book about raising balanced kids in this hyper-connected world, and I’ve also done quite a number of presentations and media interviews on this topic. With three boys of our own (ages 16, 13, and 8), my wife and I are in the thick of it! As parents, we worry about the harms caused by screens, but therein lies part of the problem. What do I mean by this? Let me explain.

Are Screens Causing Harm?

Overall, it would be difficult to argue that the many pros of technology, including our screens, don’t far outweigh the cons. Think of all the ways in which we use technology to improve productivity, communication, entertainment, travel, education, and information acquisition as well as assisting in advances in science, medicine, and space exploration. I’m benefiting from this screen as I write this blog right now, and I sincerely hope you are getting something out of reading it!

That being said, one reality of our screens is that we can’t have the pros without any cons. For instance, we can’t have the benefits of increased access to news and information without greater exposure to fake news, misinformation, bad science, and conspiracy theories. Also, some of the benefits are so compelling (e.g., entertainment from video games, streaming content) that we can, in borrowing from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, have “too much of a good thing.”

Numerous studies indicate that the use of screens can be harmful at times, including:

  • Technoference: When we “phub” others as we look at our screens over the people who are physically present
  • Cyberbullying: Using social media and screens to harass and bully others.
  • Sexual predators: Adults using gaming, social media, and other screen-based methods to “groom” children and teens into sexual behavior and encounters.
  • Upward social comparison: Tween and teen girls, in particular, can suffer from unfavorably comparing themselves to others who are perceived to be wealthier, happier, more attractive, more popular, etc.
  • Distracted driving: Turning one’s attention to the phone (e.g., texting, searching for a music playlist on Spotify) while driving can increase the risk of accidents (even hands-free calls do this).
  • Interference with sleep: Screens can be so compelling that we stay up too late interacting with them. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with a host of negative physiological and psychological effects.

While legitimate concerns do exist, an over-focus on screen harm can elicit fear in us. This is where an insidious problem lurks.

Are We in A Moral Panic About the Harms of Screens?

Every generation seems to undergo a “moral panic” about the effects of some new form of media or technology. While I am concerned about some of the effects of screens, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the alarmism regarding the effects of screens. 

For instance, let’s just take a quick look at the title of San Diego State University psychology professor Dr. Jean Twenge’s book: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us. Perhaps you ran across her similarly alarming article from The Atlantic: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” How about the article by psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas Kardaras “It’s ‘Digital Heroin’: How Screens Turn Kids Into Psychotic Junkies”?

I don’t mean to pick on just Dr. Twenge or Dr. Kardaras. There are many well-meaning psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and child advocates who have expressed fears regarding the effects of screens on kids, teens, and the rest of us. I’ve voiced some of them myself!

However, our level of concern should fit the level of threat. The answer to the question as to whether smartphones have “destroyed” a generation is NO. “Destroyed” is WAY too strong of a term. Sure, there are some negative effects of screens, but there are many positives too! It’s complicated!

Why Do We Focus on Harm So Much?

There’s some truth to the oft-cited phrase describing the news media, “If it bleeds, it leads.” We are “hard-wired” to be vigilant of potential threats to our well-being. Imagine ourselves in a hunter-gatherer tribe on the African savanna 75,000 years ago. If we ignored the positive news of a tree bearing fruit nearby, we would most likely live to see another day. However, if we ignored the negative news that there was a pride of lions by our favorite watering hole, we could end up being their dinner. This is one of the reasons we are so drawn to attend to negative news over positive news (part of our negativity bias).

Because negative news of the world tends to lead the news cycle, we have the mistaken impression that the world is going down the tubes. Why are so many of us wrong about the state of the world? One reason is that we have a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic such that, if we can easily think of an example of an event, we think it is commonplace.

Since the news is filled with stories of death, rape, abduction, mass shootings, sexual predators, and so on, we can easily recall incidents of them. This leads us to believe that these negative events are much more common than they actually are. Certainly, problems, tragedies, and horrors of this world do exist and need to be addressed. There is much work to be done, AND the world is a much better place than it used to be. These two realities co-exist. However, because of our focus on the negatives of the world, which is fed by the news media (who is just serving what we are unconsciously drawn to), we are missing out on the wonderful news that the world is pretty awesome!

Where Does the Fear of Screen Harm (FOSH) Fit In?

With so many books, news articles, and talking heads voicing fears about the harms caused by screens, many people, especially parents, are quite freaked out about how screens are affecting kids/teens. Here’s where the paradoxical FOSH kicks in. It goes something like this:

  • Parents read alarming news stories about the harms caused by screens.
  • They are exposed to such news about the harmful effects through their screens.
  • The parents become increasingly worried that their kids are being (or will be) harmed by their screens.
  • The fear experienced by parents IS a type of harm.
  • This fear can also drive negative interactions between parents and kids (e.g., conflicts between parents and teens over screen access/use)
  • Proving that screens CAN BE harmful!

Thus, we have the paradoxical FOSH. The fear of screen harm, arguably, might be causing more harm than the screens themselves!

A Summary of FOSH

Our primary responsibility as parents is to raise children who are healthy, happy, and well-adjusted. Given how quickly smartphones, social media, and related technologies have become intertwined within our lives, and the lives of our kids, we should be concerned. Our use of screens can cause real problems. We’ve all probably experienced some of these firsthand. We do need to roll up our collective sleeves to address some of the harms caused by screen use (and overuse).

Yet, with a nod to Mark Twain, reports that screens have destroyed kids’ lives have been greatly exaggerated. The media often selectively report negative news about screen harm because we are drawn to such news. The alarming reports of the harms caused by screens are spread through our screens. In a paradoxical fashion, this creates the Fear of Screen Harm (FOSH). FOSH, which is itself a type of harm, can drive parents into conflictual interactions with their kids about their screen use. These conflicts represent another type of harm caused by screens that has its roots in fear.

Our concerns about screens should match the level of threat. While screens can cause harm, it’s not the end of the world as we know it. We need to keep our FOSH in check. Now, please don’t have a Fear of a Fear of Screen Harm (FOAFOSH). That would cause a slip into an alternate dimension of absurdity that none of us should visit!