Dangers of imposing screen time limits on children

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Youth in trouble

Horrible things seem to be happening to our youth. Behavioral problems, obesity, drugs, videogame addiction, and even suicide are all driven to epidemic levels. For the first time, we worry that the next generation will actually regress as compared with their predecessors. In the search for culprits we have identified quite a few: the internet, computer games, junk food, pornography, legal marijuana, and even sugar. Hundreds of research teams raise an alarm. Epidemiologists find correlations between the use of electronic devices and depression, between the availability of drugs and suicide, between violence and the activity of the amygdala, between gaming and a horrible slump in school performance. In 2019, the most authoritative source, World Health Organization, called up a large team of experts, and made a unanimous recommendation to reduce screen time for little children (see: WHO guidelines). The health officials have had it. The epidemics need to be stopped by eliminating the culprits.

The real tragedy is that all the above correlations, diagnoses, and culprits are largely wrong! They miss the central point that torments the youth of the present era. The real culprit is the omnipresent yoke of protective and authoritarian upbringing and education.

When we see kids addicted to videogames, we blame the games, developers, or the industry. Instead, we should blame parents, teachers, and the rest of the oppressive adult world. Unhappy kids will always seek comfort in behaviors that lead to addictions.

Addictions in youth are not about addictive agents, but about reward deprivation

People who seem naturally resistant to addictions have usually one thing in common: happy fulfilled minds propped up by a healthy self-esteem. They do not need to worry about a drink at a party. They will drink if it adds to the fun, and stop or give up when other priorities take precedence. Genetic differences do play a role but they are secondary.

A healthy child immersed in rich environments, like a rat in a Rat Park, will spend long hours on a football field, and will not experience pathological cravings for candy. His risks of obesity or diabetes are greatly reduced. In addition to reasonable health, the main necessary ingredient of that healthy balance is freedom. PE classes at 8 am are a form of torture for many sleepy kids. They do the opposite of what we want to achieve. Instead of instilling a healthy approach to sports, they generate hate of exercise, hate of PE, and/or hate of school.

However, the hate of exercise is only a minor problem. Most kids, at least at younger ages, still love PE. A much larger problem comes from early and long school hours, boatloads of homework, chores at home, authoritarian parenting, and other curbs on freedom.

If a PE teacher worries about a declining buzz on a new beautiful sport field, it is only partly caused by less interest in sports. Digital devices are a problem too. But the main culprit is the reward deprivation in youth (see: Diversity of reward).

In this life commandeered by others, there is little room or passion for exercise. Pathological cravings follow (see: School increases addictions). They can range from chocolate, to alcohol, to pizza, to computer games, and beyond.

Understanding learntropy

In making judgements about the impact of digital technology, it is vital to understand concepts such as the learn drive and learntropy to protect healthy strategies in providing children with the right conditions for development. Without that basic understanding of the Fundamental law of learning, we will keep coming up with misguided strategies that will stunt development.

Dr David L. Hill (MD, FAAP) is the Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. At healthychildren.org (from AAP), Hill condemns parents who expose little children to television (source):

I hear a lot of parents say, "But my baby likes it!" Infants may stare at the bright colors and motion on a screen, but their brains are incapable of making sense or meaning out of all those bizarre pictures

Time and again, I see experts attempt to override child's healthy learn drive. On the way, they also need to override parental good natural protective instincts. If babies stare at bright colors, it is because of the high visual learntropy of the signal. For a 1-year-old, any movable object, e.g. a box, should be more interesting than a TV screen. TVs gain on attractiveness in cases of immobility (e.g. in a pram). However, if TV wins in a free setting, we should not limit access on principle.

Nobody, incl. the "expert", has an idea of what is happening in the child's brain and what computation provides the reward. It is not just "bright colors". The salience may suffice for the educational effect at early stages of development. Once the colors stop being educational, the child will naturally switch to other activities given the choice.

For an "expert", a child is "incapable of making sense or meaning". In reality, it is a neural network involved in feature extraction and pattern recognition that makes those decisions (see: knowledge valuation network). The "sense or meaning" is relative to the present level of "visual computation knowledge" stored in the network. To an art connoisseur, a child's doodle makes no sense either. The child's brain knows best.

Imagine a bookish medical expert who would contradict your sensation of pain: "No, you don't feel pain in the thigh. I know medicine. You feel pain in the calf". Or an expert who would decide for you which books to read. Predicting the vectors of the learn drive on the part of a pediatrician belongs to the realm of charlatanry. Strategy recommendations based on charlatanry can be dangerous.

Hill adds:

It takes around 18 months for a baby's brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world

If it takes 8 years for an average child to recognize wildebeest as familiar, should we wait that long before exposing it to the images of the savannah. Would a trip to Africa be a waste of time because "infants may stare at animals, but their brains are incapable of recognizing the species"? Only when Hill's reasoning is extended to higher levels of cognition, the absurdity becomes evident.

The formula is not to deprive a child of freedom. What a parent can do, is to play a clown and try to attract a child's attention with brighter colors, or better colors, or better motion, or just with a smile and some cuddling. The formula is not to deprive but to increase the number of options to choose. Naturally, once the choice is made by the child's brain, the kid should not be bothered incessantly. Once the book is picked from the shelf, the brain should have some time to contemplate the value and to make further decisions.

Hill adds "video entertainment is like mental junk food for babies". Again, we see an adult unable to decode the meaning in the processes that occur in a child's brain. In many cases, engaging a kid in play is likely to be beneficial, but the choice must be left to a child's brain. Turning off TV, and tossing a new toy into the room may be a form of deprivation (dependent on the child's assessment of the toy). The right way would be to toss in the toy and turn off the TV only in the case when the kid truly pays no attention.

Passive TV stunting language development is just plain fiction. This would only be the case if TV competed successfully with parental attention or unskilled social interaction. If "video programming is constantly changing, constantly interesting" then it can only be seen as a good thing as long as the kid is ready to pay attention. The more efficient the learning, the less chance the brain will enjoy junk mental food.

I am happy to note that Dr Hill did not fail to add that "Children get more out of interactive programs like Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street when they answer the characters' questions. Educational TV makes the biggest difference for children whose homes are the least intellectually stimulating". In other words, screens can make sense. I would add that the child's brain provides best assessment. If a home is "less stimulating" chances are that Dora or Sesame will turn out more attractive. That attractiveness we should celebrate. Kids get an extra chance for a good start.

There is no better judge of the educational content than a healthy child's own brain

Declining grades at school

It goes without questions that videogames, YouTube or TV will have a negative impact on grades at school (on average). However, grades at school do not measure wisdom. They only measure the compliance with the demands of teachers and/or the curriculum.

Today's virtual world is often far more educational that the boredom at school. The brain is a natural adaptive selector of good sources of knowledge that ensure memory coherence. Schools of today stand no chance in the competition. Only the best teachers can compete with free choice on the net. The weakness of schools should not be mourned (beyond the fact that they are compulsory). The weakness is relative to the progress in the access to knowledge, and is a reason to rejoice. Kids today can develop their knowledge by an order of magnitude faster than their parents. The main stumbling block are the incursions from the adult world with incessant nagging "What about school?"

Child's mindless imitation

Minimalist Joshua Becker got a great deal of good ideas about simple living (e.g. How to stop comparing yourself to others). However his take on screen limits is very limiting. He writes (source):

Children naturally copy what they see. For a simple, chilling experiment, allow your son to watch professional wrestling and see how long it takes before he tackles his sister

The observation is incomplete and misleading. Children naturally copy what they see as potentially rewarding. If they hate broccoli, no amount of screen time can persuade them. Wrestling is naturally attractive for boys who have their alpha male needs deeply ingrained in their psyche. There is a risk in exposing a child to crime that looks cool. However, the risk comes from incomplete knowledge of the world. Limiting own exploration and adding more passive schooling will only make kids more vulnerable (see: Education counteracts evolution). Mature models of reality naturally weed out potential pathologies and limits on freedom are actually increasing the risk. If a parent imposes parental control, authoritarian parenting may be seen as a lock on the beauty of the world. In such cases, discovering "cool crime" at a friend's apartment will sound doubly enticing. So will the friend, his home cinema set, and all philosophies available therein. All attractions locked by a parental control barrier will taste sweetest. This is how parent-child conversation dies. This is how dangerous attitudes or addictions are promoted. Free access to the knowledge of the world is the best warranty of the fast convergence of (1) models of reality with (2) the reality.

I support minimalistic approaches to life. However, parent's philosophy must naturally compete with other takes on life. Only then can it truly take root and dominate by virtue of its inherent validity. If access to screens competes effectively (e.g. with minimalist approach), it is not without reason. I often spend up to 15 hour in front of a screen. I have been doing that for over three decades now. I mourn a whole host of negative side effects. However, the rewards of knowledge and communication are apparently great enough to justify this approach to myself. If I was born a few decades later, and my mom tried to limit my screen time, all the love in the world would not suffice: screen time would win. Its attraction rooted in the pleasure of learning would swing the balance. The future would win with the present. I would run away from home, and possibly stay in touch via a screen. Restrictions would be futile.

Becker's mantra is "There’s been too much screen time in this family". Parents should use ideas and reason, not mantras. Otherwise they take a risk. Instead of being authoritative models with new interesting things to communicate in each conversation, they may become "old drones" that kids tend to run away from to find fulfillment in the group of peers.

A minimalist should see young brains are being natural adaptive optimizers. Limited trust is costly and anti-minimalistic

Cultural deprivation

Kids with no exposure to digital technologies will be culturally deprived. They may be unable to follow a conversation. They will appear strange. Unfortunately, this happens to me pretty often too. My knowledge of cars or Polish TV shows is pretty catastrophic. Occasionally, this makes it hard to participate in conversations. I appear to be pretty uneducated. This way, I know how it feels to be culturally deprived. A child with no exposure to the virtual world may suffer more drastic deficits. One of my smartest little friends, born in 2010, keeps amazing me with his memory and knowledge. He is fluent in multiplying two digit numbers. He is diligent at school and knows 3 languages pretty fluently. His family attributes his great progress to discipline and attentiveness at school. His screen access is limited. I never question such limits when I see a happy and fulfilled child. However, I was recently alarmed when I asked my little friend about his interests in science. He explained he did not know what "science" was. I asked again in Polish and in English (the kid has spent a few years in Scotland and a few years in Poland). While he can multiply 12x12 without a blink, he does not know what science is. Even worse, the word "carbon dioxide" did not ring the bell. This defies belief. How can a super-smart 9 year old fail to know a keyword that is central to the climate change debate? A keyword that pops up in the news every hour. I can only attribute it to deprivation caused by news filtering (for the sake of direct instruction). This is not a falsity vector. The kid is smart and happy. This gap will be remedied, but it illustrates that screen time limits may adversely affect world knowledge.

Diminishing social skills

The impact of technology on social skills is hard to predict and different in different contexts. Some kids prefer solo pursuits, others will use social media or gaming to increase social interaction. If the new world is saturated with electronic media, the brain needs to adapt accordingly. Different skills will have different weights and adaptation on demand will produce the best outcomes (on average).

Adults keep complaining that smartphones isolate kids from each other. My impression is opposite. On a dark rainy winter evening, few adults venture out to the sports field. I was once surprised by a group of teens huddled together in a circle. They were hooded and wet. They were all busy with theirs smartphones. They were busy in silence. When I asked them why they do not use the phone in the comfort of their home, they said it is more fun to do it together. Their silence was just an illusion. That illusion influences the adults who fail to ask the right questions. From time to time, someone among the teens would observe something interesting, they interacted, and then went back to their pursuits. In addition to this social closeness, they also prefer the non-restrictive company of their peers over the nagging presence of domineering parents.

If social skills get weakened or distorted by technology, it is a form of adaptation. If that adaptation is pathological, the cause will often be found well outside the technology. It is more about parenting and schooling. Worst distortions come from the impact of social media on the pathological nature of closed systems of socialization. If a closed system is pathological, amplifying its powers with social media is even more so. Again, the technology is just a messenger. The problem stems from closing kids in a box they can't escape.

Last but not least, in the modern world, new kinds of social skills need to emerge. An individual who is well-socialized by the old criteria may struggle to interact digitally. It may be harder to read emotions over e-mail or Facebook. Misreads are easy and can be very costly. The new world requires new adaptations, incl. new forms of social interaction.

Increase in child aggression

Opponents of screen exposure believe that screens make kids aggressive. Allegedly, players confuse computer games with reality. Horror stories of aggressive behavior of gamers can only be explained by serious mental disorders. After all, a schizophrenic does not need a computer to confuse reality with imaginary constructs in his mind.

The claims about induced aggression are rooted in correlation studies that do not account for reward diversity. In a kid with limited freedom, incl. limits on screen time, aggression may equally well be caused by the restrictions, not by the entertainment content. My own observations make me inclined to be even more bold: the aggression is induced by parents, not by the games or YouTube. Imitation of aggressive behaviors observed in electronic media is usually pretty detached and non-aggressive. For example, kids may practice MMA moves with a stoic analytical mind. They would quietly practice aggressive moves with each other for the day they need aggression in real life. However, the imitation alone is non-aggressive.

Behavioral changes after many hours with the screen are easily confused with a natural homeostatic fatigue (see Swiss cheese model). A child who spends a day on a football field will present with a very different, and apparently more favorable behavior than the one who has spent the day on learning (with a screen or for school). Crankiness comes from the strain on the networks and may have little to do with the actual exposure to screens. Captivating books might have the same effect if they were the target of family wars. Luckily, rarely do parents condemn book reading, even if it comes at the cost of homework.

If you say that when a child is deprived of a device, "acute sudden withdrawal reactions may occur (aggression, etc.)" (see below), you are right. However, preventive steps taken are predominantly wrong. It helps to remember that:

Football can ruin a marriage

The following story illustrates the psychological effects of screen time limits on children:

Imagine you love football. You do not mind spending your Saturdays on watching your favorite league, reading, googling, learning, dreaming, etc. Whatever your goals in life, this kind of passionate pursuit is good for your brain, for mental health, and your longevity as long as it does not stop you from actually playing football, or you do not combine watching football with tons of beer and pizza. Moderation may be a good thing, but you agree it cannot be imposed from above (e.g. by government). If your wife started nagging you regularly about your football habits, it could ruin part of the pleasure. You might become jittery, annoyed, angry, stressed, etc. If the nagging repeated every Saturday, you might be inclined to install a lock in your den. The nagging might turn your beloved wife into a hag you would rather avoid, esp. on Saturdays. If your wife kept inventing all possible tricks to keep you away from football, e.g. Saturday family visits, she could literally drive you mad. Now imagine, one day, she hit a great idea: she would cut cables of your TV feed. Would you not just fly into a rage? Who would you blame for your rage: football or your wife? Should your rage be an excuse for a higher authority, e.g. your wife, to make you watch football under "strict supervision"? Few human being would be able to control their emotions. And yet we do play that ban-and-tease game with children regularly. We keep nagging them: "no games, do your homework", day in, and day out. Is it really a surprise they go loco? Is it a surprise that psychiatric intervention is on the rise? It is not the child, or the game that is the source of the problem. It is the parent who plays god with child's emotions and life. It is the violation of human rights that sparks anger!

A scientist might just take a cold correlation: more gaming equals more aggression. I would not be surprised. In a similar fashion, we could find that more football means more marital problems. Instead of collecting dry numbers, I prefer to talk to kids. I have not played a computer game since 1986 (I explain why here). Due to my ignorance, I keep asking around. I talk to kids and I talk to adult players too. A clear picture emerges: healthy gamers are able to self-regulate. They gradually switch away from games to pursuits with long-term goals. The games have no impact on their level of aggression. They can compartmentalize: they can kill in a game, and be loving and empathetic in real life. Like bilinguals can separate languages, they can separate gaming from real life. The problem of addiction starts showing up when external pressure is applied, or with others sources of stress, like school. Like in a rat park, kids that are free to access electronic devices, do not lose their social needs or their need to move around, frolic, and play in the real world. The root of the evil comes from the adult world. This is how they see it almost unanimously. As an eager observer of kids around, I agree. Gaming is a great source of learning. The issue of moderation must play out individually in the family, however, coercive means inevitably backfire. Moreover, child's freedom should always be sacred

Pervasive and omnipresent propaganda

Kids are exposed to a great deal of fake news and propaganda on-line. However, there is no better protection from propaganda than rich knowledge of the world and good inoculation with omnipresent fake news. Screen limits do the exact opposite: they lock the access to the world of knowledge. I am yet to see a 7 year old roaming around a conspiracy theory sites. They do roam in and then they roam out. Their interests fluctuate and are controlled by the learn drive. Flat earth theories are interesting and education (when presented by contrarian provocateurs). Comparing these theories with other takes on science is equally interesting. In the end, the chances of keeping a wrong model in one's head keep diminishing with each passing day of exposure to reality. Watching a sunset may be that one real life event that will swing the young mind towards saying: "flat earth is for suckers". Alternatively, the ultimate convincing argument might be found on YouTube or other media. The trajectory towards the truth is unpredictable but it always tends to converge on reasonable models given minimum impact of falsity vectors of which parental restrictions are one (based on resistance algorithms).

Mind-altering power of advertising

Kids are exposed to an extra dose of advertising. And then they develop all the tools, trick, and techniques needed to ignore adverts. They know which button to press or how to swipe the screen to avoid an ad. Advertisers pay dearly for the fact that advertising keeps many videogames free. An e-savvy child will know what to click in order to take a toilet break, and have some game credit available upon return. Even worse, kids often find adverts educational and captivating. They will clock up a lot of watching time ruining the analytics. Advertisers pay for a child's joy. In the subject of kids and advertising, it is the advertisers who have a problem. They have a large audience who ignores their message.

WHO guidelines on screen time limits

A lead spokeswoman on the new World Heath Organization guidelines on screentime is Dr Juana Willumsen. Willumsen is a technical officer in the WHO department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases. She was part of WHO Steering Group listed in the report. She is a nutritionist who works on population-based strategies for diets, exercise, and sleep in children as much as antenatal care, prevention of newborn deaths, breastfeeding, etc. She is not a cognitive scientist qualified to make statements on the psychological impact of videogames or YouTube, nor is she claiming to be. Her primary concern is the competition between screens and physical activity (see: interview). Careful analysis of the WHO report makes it easy to conclude that if parents could meet the guidelines for physical activity, the limits on screen time might largely be nullified (see the full report (PDF)).

It is true that screen time correlates with less physical activity, however, it may come in part from spending more time on games instead of exercise, and part from the increased proneness to addiction in kids showing reduced physical activity. When a child is active on demand, she is active enough, and screen time is unlikely to reduce that amount beyond a natural downregulation via control based on the stimulus value as determined by the brain reward systems. The natural need for exercise is pretty strong, and inactivity may actually add to the reward of physical activity in many contexts.

The Verge is on the mission to foretell "how technology will change life". Their analysis of the WHO report is on the dot (source):

Much has been made of the World Health Organization’s new recommendations that caregivers restrict the amount of time young kids stare at screens. But the guidelines are less about the risks of screen time itself, and more about the advantages of spending time doing pretty much anything else

The conveniently distorted message in the media reporting the WHO guidelines spoke a lot about the harms done by the screens, but Juana Willumsen disclaims it:

We didn’t specifically look for evidence about the effects of screens, in terms of the light emitted, for example, or the content that’s on the screen a child is watching, and cognitive development. We were specifically looking at sedentary behavior

The Verge quotes an expert in the field, Dr Michael Rich, whose take on media and gaming is more cognitive:

For Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, focusing on the WHO’s screen time recommendations misses the big picture: “It’s not that the screen is potentially toxic, per se, it is that it is a relatively impoverished stimulus for them compared to face-to-face interaction,” he says

In a healthy child, with a healthy learn drive, there is no risk of "impoverished stimulus" injury. A healthy mind will quickly get bored with signals that carry low learntropy. However, the perception of the signal can be distorted by other problems in child's life. And those problems should be addressed first.

Dr Rich aptly calls himself a mediatrician (i.e. a pediatrician with the focus on the impact of the media). He commented more extensively on the Center on Media and Child Health website here:

While it is good that the WHO is building global awareness, we are concerned that Gaming Disorder is too narrow to describe what we are seeing in young people who come to our clinic. We are not only seeing problems with gaming, but also with social media, pornography, and what we’re calling “information-bingeing” which is open-ended searching and viewing of short-form videos, memes, hyperlinks, wikis and other internet black holes

Dr Rich is right with his observations. As a medical doctor, he is extremely cautious with his recommendations. In this case, "information bingeing" is called wrong or maladaptive because of an externally imposed norms (e.g. as set by parents, school, etc.). If school progress stagnates because of the digital media, it is considered bad for the child. If communication with the parents weakens, it is wrong. However, we should rather start from addressing the child's freedom. Bingeing is a natural response to restrictions on freedom. It is an escape from the oppressive reality into an new attractive world of cognitive challenge and new knowledge carried by wikis, videos, memes, and the like. Their black-hole nature only reflects the value and reward the young brain obtains. Branding these with a label of pathology can only make things worse. Naturally, consultation with a wise mediatrician is always recommended. Perhaps parents need a consultation more than the kids themselves (see: Parent management training).

Rich is also interested in misinformation and dangerous conditioning caused by digital media:

Research shows when activities such as smoking or drinking are shown without consequence and watched repeatedly, some teens are more likely to try them. [...] Experts warn that the same may be true when children see repeated acts of violence that are bloodless and lack negative outcomes. When violence is coupled with pleasure, such as comedy or sexiness, or a means to a victorious end, violence is more attractive

All those dangers come from poor general knowledge of children exposed to "dangerous" content. The harms of smoking and drinking are explained richly in the world of media and the message is inescapable. A ban on digital media may thus be counterproductive. The same correct message issued by an authoritarian parent may be treated with a contrarian opposition. Instead of objectively consuming knowledge from multiple sources, the child may act defiantly and oppose the parent as much as reason.

Rich comments on the oft-denounced popular game Fortnite:

Explain to your child what firearms can do and how to responsibly use them, as well as the difference between using a weapon in real life vs. in a video game. And above all, whatever they do to have fun, ingrain in them the value of their lives and well-being – and the lives and well-being of others

In other words, a mediatrician will not tell you to ban Fortnite outright. Instead, correctly and wisely, he suggests that parents should be inquisitive, communicative, and helpful. A dangerous message can be counteracted with rich knowledge. A conversation is a boost to knowledge. Instead of a simple surgical cut such as a ban on a gaming console, parents should provide all conditions for a child to access the rich knowledge of the world. Knowledge is the best prevention in this case.

How much screen time is ok?

My chief concerns about screen time are DSPS, shortsightedness, and inactivity (I list my concerns in detail here). It so happens that there is no clear optimization criterion to compute optimum or maximum screen time from data. Experts sit at the table and make their guesses. I guess differently. If you trust WHO, listen to WHO. If you worry about DSPS, I think you better listen to my claims that are derived from data obtained with SleepChart. These data is unique and no WHO representative has ever requested access or expressed interest.

An expert in heart disease, may see the obesity epidemic, blame screens, and propose restrictions. He will not see or consider cognitive benefits, or may be oblivious to the fact that screens may motivate to exercise as well (thousands of channels promote healthy fads, old and new, such as parkour, street workout, break dance, skating, acrobatics, and the like). Experts may be unaware of the harm caused by the disciplinarian approach based on curfews and restrictions.

From my point of view, looking for a specific number of optimum screen time can be compared to looking for the optimum amount of jogging per day for everyone, or optimum sleep length. Here is a nice discussion.

Kids self-regulate fantastically, however, once we intervene and impose limits, the whole cascade of resistance reactions leads to a chaos in the control system and the ultimate loss of control. The kid will not get obese because of screens only because the need to run is hardwired in the brain. However, if we wake kids up early, and tire them at school, it is all too easy to push them into a habit of whole days with a tablet just because they have no power or will to run around. Modern lifestyle introduces chaos in our biology and it takes a great deal of knowledge to defend an adult, let alone a child. Even healthy vegetables from the supermarket may introduce a risk of cancer. Every (non-Musk) car passing by and every chimney shorten our lives. The simplest formula to regain control is to minimize the interfering impact of technology into the brain controllability.

If you want to ban the computer above the 2 hour limit, how do you do it? By limiting freedom? By contract? Bans may breed resentment and help the addiction. We should rather celebrate the fact that kids want to learn! The more we pressure the young to comply with school demands and ban the phone or the computer, the more the games become and escape, instead of just being a learning opportunity.

I claim to be rational. I used to claim that I have conditioned myself to enjoy my work. However, today I see that it is not about conditioning. It is all about the pleasure of productivity. By working hard, I became "naturally productive", and I no longer need to employ self-discipline or re-iterate a set of goals. It is now all an instinct, and it is pleasurable. There is little room for a reflection that would make me stop working. On occasion, when I slow down and think, I keep coming back with "this is the right thing to do". I immediately go back to my routine. I regret that a majority of kids do not have the autonomy to learn how to live a productive life with joy. The example from above is not too encouraging.

Productivity can stem from self-regulation. In conditions of freedom, limits and restrictions can be replaced with healthy habits

Compulsory school for 3-year-olds

Obsession with the harm of screens can worsen the problem of schooling.

Emmanuel Macron has a reform-oriented mind. However, eager reform combined with a poor understanding of the brain can lead to a disaster. A great deal of educational reformers believe in the myth that early education is a great way to grow a smarter society. In reality, it may be one of the most dangerous ways of interfering with natural development. Instead of a generation of happy problem solvers, we may end up with a sick society. I discuss the whole array of harms of early education, of which maternal separation might be most important at the age of 3 (see: Daycare misery). However, in the context of limits on screen time, it is interesting to note that one of the well-intended motivations for compulsory schooling is to prevent screen abuse in children.

Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer is a doctor of law; not a doctor of mind. He is known for combating mobile devices in schools. In 2018, he professed (source):

Screen abuse has an impact on sleep quality or children’s concentration. And it can alter their language performance as the neuropsychiatrist points out. The smaller the child, the more serious it is, but the more recoverable when the situation changes. Kindergarten must therefore participate in the prevention of screen abuse, especially before the age of 7

If we swap the freedom of exploration for rigors of instruction, we will end up with a generation of kids that take intellectual slavery for granted. This enslavement is transitive. All future generations may struggle to shake off the yoke. Once a slave, always a slave. Parents raised in daycare do not have sufficient empathy or understanding of the harms of early instruction.

As it is not nice to talk about the inheritance at the funeral, it is not nice to add that the new law on early compulsory schooling will create a great deal of jobs. This way we trade the mental health of future generations for minor adult comforts today.

Cross-domain expertise lacking

My knowledge of gaming and psychiatry is not sufficient to make sweeping statements. My reasoning is largely derived from learning theory, and may be incomplete.

Dr Mike Brooks is the author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.

He is a type of a psychologist that is best qualified to speak about screen time. Not only does he have knowledge in the field. Not only does he work with troubled youth. He also admits to being an avid gamer. To cap it all, he seems to be living by his word when bringing up his own kids in the spirit of freedom and self-regulation. Only a game player with a degree in psychology could take this kind of balanced view.

To anyone worried about WHO guidelines, I recommend https://techhappylife.com/ which provides cautious and balanced counterpoint. Dr Brooks also maintains his own lighthearted YouTube channel with rich parenting advice.

With rampant claims condemning the use of digital devices, Stephanie Ware at TechHappyLife.com addresses a higher-level problem with psychology and psychiatry that strikes me as highly relevant (source)(compare my own: I have ADHD and I love it):

The debates over the effects of screen time are actually subsumed under a broader problem within the social sciences. We are at the beginning of a revolution in the social sciences due, in part, to a replication crisis. In short, much of what we thought we knew to be “true” in psychology is not. Efforts to replicate many landmark studies have fallen flat. Some of these problems might be because biases on the part of the researchers, publication biases, statistical shortcomings, poorly designed studies, cherry-picking results, p-hacking, ego, self-delusion, and blindspots. While the factors contributing to the replication crisis are varied, the aggregate effect is that shadows now loom over the many claims that psychologists have made

In agreement with Brooks and Ware, my formula for the right balance is pretty simple as it also relies on freedom and self-regulation. See: The Solution

The solution: self-balancing freedom

Instead setting screen time limits, I advocate self-balancing solution based on freedom and healthy self-regulation.

Here are the key valid concerns of the screen time:

  • competing reward: with the new source of reward, all other forms of reward may be affected competitively (e.g. reward from exercise)
  • shortsightedness: electronic devices have a substantial contribution to the epidemic of myopia
  • inactivity: (most) digital technologies favor immobility
  • sleep disorders: phase disorders are epidemic (esp. DSPS at teen age)
  • food: immobility leads to skewed diets, poor appetite control, and obesity
  • school: rich digital life often dramatically impacts grades at school

Other concerns: addiction, aggression, depression, etc. are largely side effect of limits on freedom (esp. abuse, authoritarian parenting, schooling, bullying, etc.). I address those throughout this text.

This is my take on those individual concerns:

  • competing reward can best be addressed by even stricter adherence to protecting freedom to maximize efficient control based on self-regulation. The new highly rewarding world provides less stability in self-control. It is very easy to tip the balance towards a new stable and harmful equilibrium. The richer the world of rewards, the greater the need for freedom
  • shortsightedness does not need to be called a pathology. It is rather a natural adaptation to the proximal world. The right way to address this concern is to provide options that exercise the eye accommodation system, e.g. more sports in open spaces in bright sunshine, more time on the lap of nature, etc.
  • immobility is best tackled by employing the power of addiction. Reward from exercise may be hard to come by in the modern immobile world. This is why simple moves such as buying a skateboard may not be enough. A good example from above in the family would work better. Regular exercise is the best warranty. I do not have a tight prescription, but my own adherence to regular exercise is based on a healthy addiction. I see many success stories around so the problem should be solvable
  • sleep: I think it should not be difficult to contractually agree with a child to never use screens past a certain hour (e.g. 18-19 in the evening). I argue against bribes in learning, but if a compensation is needed to sign up a contract, I support it. Avoiding blue light and excitement in the evening is all that is needed to counteract phase delays (see: Curing DSPS and insomnia)
  • food: I have not solved my own problem with healthy eating, but I know that the key trick is not to mess up the appetite control system in youth. Again freedom and self-regulation might play a role. In addition, bad example flows richly from above. As for my own ignorance, I roughly know what mistakes I made (e.g. strict dieting), but those go against the scope of this text
  • school: I believe that the whole concept of passive schooling should be scrapped. In free learning, there are no concerns about a drop in grades. Learning thrives because of the right choices made by the learn drive system. Those choices maximize learning as long as we accept it cannot easily be directed towards specific goals. I would value general knowledge of the world more than dry formulas presented at school. Child's brain accommodates those dry prescriptions and tosses them away instantly like yesterday's dinner. In conditions of freedom, learning is unlikely to suffer because of digital technologies. Just the opposite. It will accommodate and utilize new opportunities

In conclusion, three points are essential for protecting kids from the harms of screen time:

Protecting a kid from dangers of new technologies does not need to be associated with limits on freedom. It does not need to be difficult or stressful. For example, a new device can be purchased on the basis of a contract: the parent offers to the cover the cost, the child agrees to obey simple microrules that protects his own health (e.g. "no screen time past 18:00"). Those microrules may provide ample room for self-regulation and fulfillment. Hopefully, the kid is capable of sticking to his own promises, which should not be difficult in a healthy relationship.

In other words, freedom and self-regulation should rule. Adults should only assist in areas of actual physiological threat.

The formula for digital balance involves (1) freedom, (2) diversity of reward, and (3) respect for human biology

Parents react angrily to my claims

Rarely do I see that much outrage with what I write about education as it is the case with the exposure to screens, video and computer games. The root of that anger stems from a double-whammy of biologically-based and socially ingrained algorithm that ensures cohesion in social groups. When we see a member of a social group (1) express a different opinion, and we believe (2) the opinion is highly harmful, we attack the outlier. This behavior is built-in in the brain, which means it is beneficial from the point of view of the evolution. This is a basic ingredient of one of the types of bullying (achieving compliance via social stigmatization). In addition, there is an amplifying component in that algorithmic aggression. When the target seems impervious, the attackers escalate. I am happy to report that I am rather impervious to social pressure. I am impervious, because I believe we need to respect a child's freedom for the sake of long-term development. I also believe in cognitive value of digital media, and he power of the learn drive algorithm. I cannot respond to social pressure because that would quarrel with my basic understanding of how the brain works. I do not need to be stubborn, or enamored with being different. If my model is strong, it is hard to change. The attack is actually making me read more, learn more, and research more. Thus far, this is rather bad news for the opposition. The model only gets stronger. Call it confirmation bias if you wish, however, this rarely is the case with models that carry inherent flaws. I have changed my mind many times in the past (e.g. see the story on the exponential nature of forgetting). The change is sparked by data, not by the anger of the opposition.

A former user of SuperMemo called SuperMemo Guru a pseudoscientific blog. In response to my text SuperMemo does not work for kids, the author was upset that I was not more straightforward. He believes I should say "Children should never use SuperMemo before teen age, nor should they use any other electronic devices".

He referenced WHO guidelines. His angry text is illustrative of how others, esp. parents, react to my writings about child freedoms. I am accused of not studying the brain.

In the appeal to authority, in addition to the WHO, DSM-V has been called up. DSM-V is easy to dismiss: it does not include concepts such as the gaming disorder or digital dementia. Claims about DSM-VI are a speculation. If DSM-VI included gaming disorder, it would speak of diagnostic methods, not about the neurophysiological roots of addiction. WHO case is more interesting, and I addressed it in a separate section.

Here is an abbreviated excerpt from the user's mail (for the original see here):

Using electronic devices by kids aged < 12 years is detrimental to their brain development. WHO itself has an advisory for parents, that if their kids use devices like a smartphone/tablet/laptop more than 1 h a day, their brain development often goes wrong and introduces addiction in child because of using the device(s) for extended periods of time. If suddenly a kid is deprived of the device, acute sudden withdrawal reactions may occur (aggression, etc.). It has been classified by WHO as a psychiatric disorder. DSM V may not have lots of info on it (given how long it takes for its authors to agree on a new edition, like it was with DSM V), but DSM VI will certainly address these research results and new ICD-10 codes will be introduced.

With that in mind, I am SHOCKED that you do not follow scientific news and WHO advisories, that clearly indicate, that - disregarding the research on impact of SuperMemo on 2-4 and older kids, with not fully developed brains - your product is not suitable for that age range. In fact, you should openly declare to potential users, that trying to use SuperMemo by users age lower than 12 years old should not be allowed except under strict and constant supervision from parents/guardians, because otherwise it may easily push them into getting distracted by other materials, readily available from the Web (YouTube with cartoons etc.) Yes, there are exceptions, but if 1 young person in the specimen of 100 people shows using your product is beneficial to their memory, it is no reason to inform the whole world your product may work for such audience, at the same time forgetting that the majority of the remaining 99 kids (test participants) may in the future suffer mentally from being exposed to Internet-connected smartphones/laptops. I leave to you doing research of the WHO advisory I mentioned and putting a warning on your website.

I would like you to take this information from WHO very seriously. What good comes from a 4 y/o being able to quote the US Constitution if the process of learning it would very likely lead to future negative consequences - to the emotional and social brain development phase of the kid?

What you should write in that article, as its main point, is that kids until getting older than 12 years, should not use smartphones, tablets or laptops daily for periods of time longer than 30 minutes, as it tends to negatively impact emotional and social aspects of their brain development. As the second point, you should write that SuperMemo could be tried and used on small kids, under full control of their parents or legal guardians, but within the time constraints defined by the WHO. If SuperMemo works, then it's OK. But as you have already noticed, there are few instances when it was used with success on a small kid.

My point is: as a scientist, you should be responsible, and warn of the potential harm. You are not an expert on brain development of young kids, please get informed on the topics from authoritative sources and correct your opinions and - even more important - correct article content to suit the current state of medicine, not the current state of your uninformed opinions

I should observe at first that the WHO guidelines say nothing about the effects of violating the recommendations. It does not speak about addictions. The words "brain" or "aggression" are not even used. All claims about "psychiatric disorders" are either a case of false memory or the effect of the game of gossip typical of modern media. This is just another example of digital dementia mythology. WHO guidelines are very cautions. The phrase "the overall quality of evidence was rated as very low" was used four times: once per each recommendation and once for the integrated set of recommendations.

I am very grateful for this criticism because it made me realize and state openly that my writings are actually not intended to express the scientific consensus. Just the opposite. Scientific consensus is easily available from other sources. SuperMemo Guru is far more about where I disagree with the scientific consensus. Mine is a dissenting opinion. It is also about my own research that I submit to reader's review (rather than peer review). In other words, SuperMemo Guru is more about my point of view. It is an opinion. My key quest is excellence in learning. Good learning requires good sources. Scientific consensus or a crowd consensus (e.g. Wikipedia), are excellent sources of knowledge for issues of secondary importance. However, when it comes to golden nuggets of inspiration, I alway seek human genius and expert opinion. I do not seek consensus. I seek people with strong models and good understanding of a given area of science. Having spent 40 years studying human brain, memory, and learning, I have built models that often go way astray from what you read in run-of-the-mill scientific journals. This is the knowledge I want to present to others. I write mostly for those who believe in my work. If you are not one of the believers, I am still happy you read and criticize. This will help me improve my texts. However, in this case, I see I disagree with the critic more than he disagrees with me. His criticism is about me saying too little (against using SuperMemo in childhood). My disagreement is more fundamental. I believe we need to adapt to live in the world, in which kids use electronic devices from early ages. Wherever we see negative side effects, we need to try to educate, mitigate and seek solutions. We cannot ban the devices or impose limits on child's freedom. If a 3-year-old said "I want to use SuperMemo", I would celebrate. However, this will never happen. Incidentally, I would also wholeheartedly celebrate being wrong with that prediction.

Harms of SuperMemo

SuperMemo insert. What is SuperMemo?
I do not plan to expand on the harms of SuperMemo beyond what I wrote in SuperMemo does not work for kids. In the context of screen limits, it is only important to notice that it is entirely possible to use SuperMemo without a child's being exposed to a screen. It might actually be one of the approaches that would work. A question stored in SuperMemo might be sneaked in during play. If the right context is found, it might provide sufficient match to build a memory. I do not know of anyone trying this approach. Kids cannot even use SuperMemo on their own accord before they can type their own messages (I exclude from that group programs for children developed at SuperMemo World). In other words, screen exposure problem is more relevant in videogames or videos. Using SuperMemo with a 2 year old would almost certainly involve a play structured around spaced repetition. It would not involve staring at a screen, esp. that bare-bones SuperMemo does not make it easy to gamify learning. Kids would just get bored. In other words, using SuperMemo at early ages, does not imply "using a screen"

Further reading



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru