How public health can talk screen time (until the science catches up)

The time we spend with tiny glowing screens is changing us. Today, it’s not that unusual to sit in front of your TV, laptop on your knees, smartphone within reach. It’s not that unusual to walk by a classroom of students or a dinner table filled with family and see screens out, heads down. It’s not that unusual, but for a growing number of public health researchers and advocates, it is concerning.

Young or old, rich or poor, mobile devices have become most Americans’ alarm clocks, movie screens, libraries, daily planners, workout buddies and gaming consoles. As a nation, we’re not quite sure how to feel about that.

While Silicon Valley makes public apologies, public school districts are expanding students’ access to high-quality education and proudly tout their “textbooks to tablets” initiatives. As parenting blogs grapple with “screen addiction,” healthcare professionals are using virtual assistants and online communities to help patients change behaviors and find support.

And on the web? You may see a banner ad from one of the many innovative government and public health initiatives, like the teen tobacco cessation texting campaign, that are using mobile devices in cool and effective new ways. Or you could read breaking news on the link between screen time and, well, take your pick. The claims include ADHD, depression and suicide, behavioral problems, shorter attention spans, poor grades, obesity, nearsightedness and trouble sleeping, for a start.

Like the incredible edible egg, our phones, tablets and laptops are now smack in the middle of a confusing, fast-moving national debate. Is screen time good for us or bad for us? Is all screen time the same? Just how much is too much? How young is too young?

In 2012, about half of American families with young children had easy access to at least one mobile device. In just 6 years, that number has climbed to 98%. And for many public health professionals, that surge signals a very real challenge. While our devices, social norms and personal habits have changed at a breakneck pace, the research public health experts need in order to understand how we’re evolving—and to provide the evidence-backed solutions children and families need to healthfully navigate these changes—is just beginning. 

Barely six months ago, the National Institutes of Health announced the United States’ most ambitious study on the issue yet: a plan to spend 10 years and $300 million dollars researching the health effects of screen time on more than 11,000 adolescent brains. Scientists will finally know how the 4.5 hours most teens spend on their phones each day can impact children’s brain structure, cognition, and social and emotional health. But those answers are more than a decade away. 

Until then, divides over the positives and negatives of screen time will continue to make campaigns about screen time and healthy choices thorny for government and public health professionals. So, how can your organization help individuals and families who are looking for guidance right now?

Until the research is in, we think there are two clear messages public health communicators can embrace:

1. Choosing high-quality screen time

To quote famed walker (that’s real) Alfred Wainwright, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” The same could be said for our screens. Consider educating people about the difference between active and passive consumption, or recommending positive screen time activities that build skills, stir curiosity or help us connect to others. You could even teach mobile device users how to avoid unfocused screen time with tips like turning off the auto-play feature on YouTube, Netflix and other streaming video services.

2. Reducing “extra” screen time

What makes falling into social media or a gaming app so dangerous? The fact that there’s no bottom to hit. What if your next public health campaign could raise individuals’ screen time awareness and accountability? Imagine teaching families how to use their devices more mindfully via parental controls, screen time tracking tools or a simple “one activity at a time” rule. Think about creating collateral that gives people of all ages practical strategies for increasing physical activity and building healthy, tech-free habits, too.

Creating public health messages while the science catches up to society isn’t easy. Public health institutions have always needed the public’s trust to succeed. At a time when most Americans’ belief in government institutions and the healthcare system is a little rocky, being transparent and truly useful is more important than ever for organizations that want to hold on to the loyalty they’ve worked so hard to earn.

We can’t ask the public to wait for definitive answers on screen time (or anything else). The good news, according to Pew Research Center, is that most people are used to hearing a lot of changing views on health. They understand that science evolves as new data come in. Just be honest about the unknowns, give your audience practical tools based on the best information you have and invite their questions and feedback. You’ll start a conversation that can help make your whole community healthier.

KW2 has been helping government and public health programs craft effective, evidence-based communications for more than 30 years. Call us to talk screen time, stigma, ACEs and more. Or ask us how we’re helping Wisconsin’s Tobacco Prevention & Control Program handle the unknowns surrounding e-cigarettes. And let us know when they finally figure out eggs.