Learning to tame screens: an interview with Serge Tisseron

Review by Benshi

Benshi was delighted to be able to put a few questions to Serge Tisseron, a French psychiatrist who specialises in screens. He developed the 3-6-9-12 rule detailing the four essential stages in children's lives: entry to kindergarten, entry to primary school, mastery of reading and writing, and transition to secondary school. He suggested milestones to help families with their screen habits and uses.

1.  How damaging are screens to children?

The more time children spend in front of screens, the less time they spend on creative games, interactive activities and other fundamental social cognitive experiences. That jeopardises the acquisition of skills such as sharing, appreciation and respect of others, which are mostly gained in early childhood. Antisocial teenagers who avoid relationships and take refuge in repetitive and sterile screen activities are not so much guilty of abuse but are very often victims of premature and massive immersion in screens. This risk is all the bigger because screens offer products our brains find so attractive, like chocolate bars and fizzy drinks do to our palate. They divert children away from cognitive, manual and relationship learning, sometimes with serious consequences. The younger the child when this starts, the more serious the consequences can be. It is impossible to talk about "suitable" programmes for a children under 24 months. The only thing that counts is the number of hours spent in front of screens, with this time always to the detriment of activities that are essential at that age. That is why every hour spent in front of a screen by a child under 24 months robs him or her of legitimate learning, and the consequences of this are felt well beyond the early years. This affects five areas. Language acquisition (not only do television and DVDs fail to expand the linguistic capacity of children who watch it, they slow down their learning); attention and concentration capacities (television damages children's attention and concentration capacities if they play in a room where it is turned on, even if they do not watch it); social capacities (in their early years is where children learn to perceive others' faces as tools for shared emotion building - every hour spent in front of a screen is done so at the expense of face-to-face exchanges with an adult or child); risks that screens pose to eyesight and sleep (the blue light of the LEDs inhibits the secretion of melatonin, a key hormone for sleep, and this disrupts the circadian rhythm,  which can lead to fatigue, attention difficulties and affect school results and social life). 

2.  There are a lot of worrying articles and reports about the impact of screens on children's health. Do the media demonise screens too much?

Over the last year the media have raised the alarm by highlighting extreme views. But dramatic alerts do not encourage collective debate about the role of screens. On the contrary, everyone feels more isolated and bereft than before. And anxiety can make denial stronger: people end up behaving as if there was on danger because it seems impossible to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it.

There are three areas, in particular, where the media have played a generally problematic role: the issue of "screen addiction", the supposed relationship between autism and screens, and the prominence given to a collection of drawings by an Austrian paediatrician. The expression "screen addiction", which is widely used in the media, does not exist for the international community. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has never spoken about "screen addiction", rather it has mentioned "gaming disorder", which it translates into French on its website as: "trouble du jeu vidéo".  As for autism and screens, fortunately France's Higher Authority of Health (HAS) has spoken out to say there is no link between the two. Lastly, the contrast made by Doctor Peter Winterstein between drawings by children "who watch a lot of television" and those by children who "watch little television" is worthless: the study has never been confirmed by anyone and, for a psychiatrist, there is no doubt that  the drawings attributed to children "who watch a lot of television" were done by children who have developmental disorders and who should be consulting with the good doctor. The amount of television they watch, even if it were excessive, could not be the only factor explaining such poor and disorganised drawings.

At 3-6-9-12, we think what parents should do first is change their own behaviour: do not give in to the temptation to turn on the television just because you are bored when you could, instead, listen to a child and take an interest in the board games that exist nowadays even for very young children. We don't say simply: "Screens are dangerous for children", rather we say: "We can only change our relationship with screens if we all do it together." For example, we run a questionnaire on screen practices that teachers and pupils' parents are invited to do together. The results then serve as the basis for discussions at the meetings we organise. We also teach adults how to play. If a nanny who is looking after young children sticks them in front of a television for four hours a day, an alert signal is not going to make her change her mind. What can convince her to change is another nanny who does things differently and can show her that you can play with children, suggest other activities to them, and enjoy it and find it gratifying.

Everywhere we work now, we encourage recreational interventions during conferences because most parents are unaware of the great collaborative games that are now available for interacting with very young children.

3.    Can you tell us about the "3-6-9-12" rule?

Parents who want to create a good educational environment should be guided by three pieces of advice: rotation involves encouraging a range of activities, with and without screens, that prioritise creation over pure consumption; support means, in particular, talking with the child about what he or she is doing and seeing on screens; and, lastly, teaching children to self-regulate by setting an amount of screen time and encouraging the child to always stick to a time-frame for screen use. Let's also avoid talking about an "addiction". That word has a precise medical definition and is only used for particularly hard pathologies. Furthermore, these extreme situations are often associated with psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, phobia or personality disorders. Let us instead refer to pathological screen use.

Lastly, let's promote positive advice. That is the advice of the "3-6-9-12" milestones campaign. It is built around three principles that apply to all ages: rotate activities, support, and teach self-regulation, which involves developing the capacity to wait.

Under 3 years old: Let's play, talk, turn off the TV

Never leave a child in front of a screen or in a room where a screen is on. That does not mean you can never play a fun app with him or her, but do so only for a short amount of time and as a complement to traditional games, and always with support. Once the child is over two, short films can also be used, so long as the child is accompanied and the parent then talks about the content with him or her.  

From 3 to 6 years old: limit screen use, share screens, talk as a family

Screens have to be shared items, and use limited to half an hour at the age of 3 and a maximum of one hour at age 6. Digital devices must be for all the family. It is also important to set a daily time slot for children so they get used to the idea of associating screen use with a time limit. And never use digital devices during meals, to calm children or to reward them. Also, let's not forgot to encourage physical activities and creative manual skills such as folding, cutting, sticking, cooking, making things, and so on.

From 6 to 9: let's create with screens, explain what the Internet is

From 6 to 9 years old is the time to learn the rules of social games. That is also the age from which children start to get introduced to creative digital tools such as digital photography, Scratch and apps for making stop-motion animations. Invite children to use screens to create. Also start talking to them about the age at which they will get their first mobile phone and set family rules that apply to everyone, not just children: a particularly important one is to ban the use of mobile telephones during meals together; also, do not allow them to be used in bedrooms at night. Buy an alarm clock for everyone!

From 9 to 12 years: teach children to protect themselves and protect their discussions 

Encourage children to manage their entertainment time, which will shift gradually from 1 hour per day to 2 hours, by getting them to note their screen time and the contents in a little "screen log book". Talk to them about what they see and do on screens. And explain the 3 rules of the Internet to them: everything you post on there can end up in the public domain, everything you post there will stay there for ever, and do not automatically believe everything you see there.

Over 12: Stay available

Several studies indicate that it is quite beneficial for teenagers to use social networks: they increase their feeling of being in touch with friends, reduce their sense of isolation and tighten existing friendships. Their pathological use usually has more to do with fleeing a real-life situation that feels insurmountable. In such situations, a forced reduction of screen time has little chance of succeeding. The important thing is to understand the underlying problem.

As a precaution, let us advise, all the same, parents to put off buying mobile phones for their children as long as possible and to go eventually for a device with limited options. At the very least, get a package that restricts the amount of Internet use, and install an app that limits the amount of time they can spend on it. In addition, advise them to put communicating with their children before using their own mobile phones! In France, in 2017, 26% of children aged 12-14 thought their parents used mobile phones too much. What would they say at ages one or two if they could talk? The rules of good mobile use only work if parents lead by example. Encourage them to use their own technological devices in a targetted way, for precise activities and not just out of boredom, and never to eat in front of their screens.

4.    Should screens be banned for children under 3?

The "no television before age 3" proposal was carried in several health journals that recommended against putting a child in a room where a television was turned on. That does not stop you from playing with a baby on a fun app or watching a cartoon with a two-year-old, but only do so for a short time and always accompany the child. There should be a national campaign to raise parents' awareness of these issues. I suggested that advertising posters for digital products should include the line: "Play, move, talk to your children, screen abuse is harmful to their development"; and digital devices' packaging should carry the warning: "Not recommended for children under 3: May harm psychomotor and emotional development"; and the following should appear on smartphones packaging: "Baby need their parents to look at them: do not let your smartphone become a screen between you and your children."

5.    From what age can children start watching cinematic works, either in cinemas or at home?

Children can watch short films from age 3. After 15 to 20 minutes, their attention dwindles and all they see is a parade of shapes and colours. That is why at 3-6-9-12 we advise parent to keep a small collection of DVDs or use an appropriate on-demand video service that enables parents to choose the film they want to watch and where films do not automatically follow on from each other. But, above all, it is important to encourage children from a young age to enjoy talking about what they have seen. Because images can be upsetting, and human beings have never invented other ways of putting distance between what moves them than talking about it, and that is true no matter the emotion involved: joy, worry or fear. Children may want to watch the same episode featuring their favourite hero several evenings in a row: it is exactly the same as for a story they like to be told. They memorise the series of events, understand the adventure and, one day, become able to tell the story of the episode.

The experience of going to a cinema theatre is not so comfortable before the age of 6. It is dark, the screen is huge, you cannot stop the images if the child is scared or does not understand and, moreover, at typical screenings viewers have to stay quiet, cannot get up or talk, and so on. If screenings are aimed specifically at children, suitable measures must be taken: prepare the theatre in advance, dim the lights, set aside times when children can get up and talk without annoying other viewers, and choose short films suitable easily understood by children of that age.

6.    What advice would you give to parents who want to introduce their children to films?

Firstly, they should know the films themselves. That will allow them to judge whether they are suitable for their children. Because all children are different and parents are the ones who know them best. Then, give the kids a quick summary of the film, obviously without spoiling the ending! If children have an outline of the narrative in mind, they can better enjoy each anecdote in the film without losing the overall thread. 

7.    What do you think of the service?

Parents get very lost when it comes to age advice: is such-and-such a film suitable for my child? Can I take my 7-year-old son and his 4-year-old sister to the same show? Are there any images or themes that could shock them or simply not mean anything to them at this stage of their understanding of the world? So any sites, services or publications that offer this type of advice are obviously very useful. It is very reassuring to be able to get information about the recommended ages for films, because the classification of cinematic works in France does not distinguish between a film that could be suitable for a 7-year-old but not for a 4-year-old. Both are classified as "universal", so how can parents get their bearings?

What is more, cinema introduces people to other ways of seeing the world, other visual identities, other sounds and music. Parents need services that open their eyes - and, therefore, those of their children - to films that are different to the standard mass-market output. There is joy in helping your child discover films that you enjoyed in your own childhood and also in discovering with them gems that you didn't know existed and which become part of your shared history.

Some films today, such as fairytales, have a symbolic and educational value. But they lose this if they are only viewed whilst seated in a cinema where verbal interactions between humans is not possible; they need to be talked about, recounted, played out, and so on. Because emotions are channeled and taught through language.

Review by Benshi