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screen time harm

Screen Time Harm-How Did Screens Affect Us?

Think Back To Your Youth

Did your parents have restrictions on the screen content you could access? Did you ever come across inappropriate content in movies, TV shows, magazines, music videos, video games, and maybe even the Internet ?

Gratuitous violence? Nudity? Sex? Drugs? For instance, did you watch any “slasher” movies or “Skinemax” as a kid? Did you sneak into any R-rated movies at theaters? See movies like Porky’s or American Pie before you even hit puberty? Play violent video games such as Mortal Kombat? Did you sext in chat rooms or on AOL’s Instant Messenger?

Did your parents know you engaged in these “inappropriate” avenues in the media?

If and when they found out, were they upset? Why might they have felt this way? If and when you did get caught, were there consequences? Why did they impose these restrictions on your media consumption in the first place? Did they ever explain their reasoning to you? What do you think they were trying to “protect” you from? Did you agree with their limits and the reasoning behind them?

How about as an adult — do you think you had too much media access as a kid? Do you look back and think your parents’ restrictions and consequences were appropriate? Or were your parents so lenient that you think they should have been setting stricter limits?

The Negative Consequences of Screen Time

If you are like me (and most people) you probably were exposed to media content as a kid that your parents would not have approved of. Depending upon how old you are, perhaps you even engaged in some, shall we say “risque” business on the Internet when you were a kid/young teen. Maybe it was just occasionally but perhaps it was A LOT. Also, you may have had more screen time than was “good” for you.

Did exposure to such screen content harm you or others involved? If so, how? Did you feel more scared, depressed, or anxious after engaging in these types of media? Did it undermine your self-esteem? Can you think of specific examples? Did exposure to sex, drugs, rebellion, and alcohol within the media influence you to engage in similar behaviors during your youth? Do some of these influences still linger? Did you suffer ill effects from having too much screen time as a youth and do these negative effects still persist today?

There Is More to This Story

Did you see what I just did? I only asked about the negatives. But, by doing so, we aren’t getting a complete picture of your screen time experiences as a youth. You surely benefited in many ways from your screen use as a kid, right? I mean, we don’t just get the negatives of screens without the positives. Think of all the fun you had watching movies with friends, playing video games, chatting online (or on the phone) with friends, etc. Recall the engaging magazines and books you read (remember that they are a form of media too!). Think of the friendships that were forged or enhanced by your screen use. Recall the power of those shared experiences of watching your favorite movies and TV shows with friends and family.

How did you benefit from screen use as a kid/teen? Did it enhance your life in any way? Did any movies you watched inspire you? For instance, did watching The Karate Kid get you into karate, did Chariots of Fire get you into running, or did Breaking Away get you into cycling?

Do some of these screen time benefits persist to this day?

A Personal Disclosure

Let’s say that there were A LOT of things that I saw on the screen as a kid that my parents would not have approved of … and didn’t know about. Still, there were a number of movies that my mom let me watch as a kid, and even took me to see, that were R-rated. However, my media experiences were similar to those of my friends and probably typical of my generation.

When we first got cable TV, I was about 10 or 11. Needless to say, cable had no parental controls built-in. My parents didn’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t watch. I suppose some of their expectations were transmitted informally. Many of the cable movie channels, such as HBO and Cinemax, did not show R-rated movies until night. So, if my parents were out late, then it was up to me to use my best judgment. Hehe.

I had a friend growing up, coincidentally named “Mike,” whose parents set, as far as I can tell, no limits on movies he could rent and watch. When we were at the video rental store, his mother would rent any R-rated movie we chose. Some of our favorites included classics Halloween, The Shining, and Phantasm. Ah, I date myself!

While my parents were fairly lax regarding my media consumption, my parents would not have rented those movies for me. This is where my buddy Mike and his mom fit in. Did you have one of those friends growing up? A friend whose parents were the “cool” ones and allowed almost anything, or at least turned a blind eye. One of the timeless ways to circumvent parents’ restrictions is to just go to a friend’s house whose parents had no such restrictions. Easy-peasy.

Screen Time Harm to Me?

Let me just focus on the many horror/slasher movies that I saw as a child and teen. Even before cable TV, I watched monster movies and classic horror films insatiably. However, I “leveled up” when cable TV hit the scene and the violence and gore became even more graphic.

Was I harmed from being exposed to all of these monster/horror/slasher movies? Well, I did become a psychologist! Maybe watching all of those horror flix DOES explain a few things. All jokes aside, I think I was a fairly happy kid/teen. I had some typical teen angst and insecurities, but I don’t think any more than most of my peers. I remember having a lot of fun with my friends, including those times in which we watched these horror flix together.

Surprisingly, I didn’t really have a lot of nightmares as a kid/teen. I might have been a tad on the anxious side, but some of that, I think, is genetic. During my later childhood and tween years, I had a bit of insomnia and felt a little “keyed up” at night for 1 or 2 years. Was that because of the horror flix? Perhaps. However, another likely culprit is all the soda my parents allowed me to drink.

I also remember being a bit afraid of the dark in certain circumstances. For instance, when my family would go camping, and I needed to walk somewhere at night, I felt my heart racing as I imagined Leatherface or Jason lurking in the shadows of the night. Sometimes I’d even start running to my destination…just in case!

Personal Reflection

Was I harmed by those horror movies? Well, if we say some of the transient fears and anxieties that I described were “harm,” then perhaps they did a little bit of harm. Even if so, it was not severe enough to interfere with my life in any noticeable way. It didn’t stop me from achieving important life goals.

The best argument against my screen time as a youth was probably the amount of TV I watched. I watched a a lot of mindless television —cartoons as a kid and sit-coms as I got older. However, I was very active as a kid/teen. The TV and video games of my day couldn’t hold my attention for very long. There were only so many Space Invaders that I could shoot before I was ready to go outside. Maybe I could have learned guitar or a foreign language, or volunteered my time to a charitable organization, during the excess time I spent in front of the TV. But saying “I could have used my time more productively” is different than saying that my screen time was directly harmful to me.

What About the Benefits That I Experienced from Screen Time as a Youth?

First, I have to say that my friends and I really enjoyed these movies. To put things into context, I would have to say that at least 95% of my screen time was benign or even beneficial (e.g., I loved nature and science shows). Yes, some things were “not appropriate” for my age, but the vast majority was.

Funny, because the benefits screens brought me are still evident in my life today. The video games I loved during my youth inspired me to study the effects of video games on kids in graduate school. After working in the computer usability field for a while, I now continue to study and write about the effects of screens. I even wrote a book about it, and here I am blogging about it! Sometimes life has a weird way of working out, right?

Parenting with Screen Time Harm in Mind

Screens are very different these days. Kids and teens can do things not possible in our youth. My wife and I struggle with screen time with our three boys just as other parents do. Our almost 16-year-old wants to watch Game of Thrones? Do we let him? Our almost 8-year-old wants to watch Stranger Things and play Hungry Shark. Do we let him?

Some kids do have problems after being exposed to certain screen content. For example, when our eldest was about 10, he was over at a friend’s house and they watched The Walking Dead. He had zombie nightmares for at least 6 months and was more scared at night. Researchers can’t do well-controlled studies on this (thankfully, as it would be highly unethical!). However, my guess is that young kids who somehow end up viewing pornography frequently experience at least some lingering problems. For example, they might become sexually active sooner, objectify girls/women more than average, and develop some unhealthy attitudes toward sex or sexual behaviors.

As parents, we must struggle with decisions around screen time. I’m for setting reasonable limits as a parent and trying to keep an informed, healthy perspective on these challenges. As I discussed in a recent blog, some of the short-term “harms” that kids might experience from exposure to certain media are not likely to affect them overall and in the long-run. Plus, these same kids are also experiencing some benefits from screen use as well. So, we can’t focus on just the negatives.

We need to try to see the bigger picture. We also need to separate what’s “best” for kids from what is actually harmful. For instance, a child watching a bunch of slime videos on YouTube might use their time more productively practicing piano, but that doesn’t mean that watching the slime videos were actually harmful.

The Takeaway

I might be wrong, but I would guess that the majority of adults, many of whom are parents now, had screen experiences during their youth that were roughly like mine. That is, some content was inappropriate for our age, we probably had a bit more than the “recommended” amount of screen time, and any ill-effects from our screen use were relatively mild or transient. At the same time, we can probably remember many positive experiences of screen time — the joys of playing video games with friends, watching Star Wars, The Matrix, or Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time and the wonders of interacting with friends online. 

Did we turn out alright? Most of us turned out at least okay, even if we are a little rough around the edges. Even when we struggle with anxiety and depression as adults, how much of that is really because of screen time when we were young? It is true that some kids and teens of today are harmed by their screen time. Screens are not without dangers. However, for most young people, screen use doesn’t affect overall well-being that much. 


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