Screen time a mixed blessing

How, some 25 years after accessing the internet became relatively commonplace for our teenagers, do we view the impact it is having on their lives?

Do we take a measured approach and accept that being digitally connected is vital to thriving in the modern world? That, as long as our teens are enjoying healthy amounts of non-screen time, including physical activity, there is nothing wrong with them devoting many hours a week to technology?

Or, do we go the Chicken Little path, fearing the long-term effects a diet of YouTube junk and TikTok nonsense will have on developing brains?

There is possibly merit in both arguments.

What is clear is that New Zealand teens really love their internet, and their devices — the mobile phone being far and away No 1 — with which they access it.

Indeed, the recent Programme for International Student Assessment, an OECD study, found New Zealand’s 15-year-olds spent more time on the internet each week than almost every other nation’s teens.

Only Denmark, Sweden and Chile reported a higher connection rate than New Zealand.

Our teens were spending a whopping 42 hours a week online — yes, six full hours every day — or seven hours above the OECD average.

Extraordinarily, that figure was more than double the rate from 2012, when New Zealand teens were online for "just" 20 hours a week.

So, it has been a decade of rapid acceleration in internet time, driven presumably by the increase in technology accessibility and the rise of ubiquitous social media platforms.

You can argue the figure of 42 hours is misleading. It includes time spent learning online at school, obviously, and also hours spent listening to music via Spotify.

There are also promising signs that our teens are using the internet to advance their education. New Zealand was just one of five countries, for example, where use of digital devices at school was associated with better performance in reading, that most vital educational tool.

Still, there is a risk in normalising the huge amount of time teens spend on the internet.

An online space is often a poor substitute for healthy human-to-human interactions, whether that be in an education, employment or social setting.

The junk that clutters up so many social media platforms has contributed to the rise of fake news, and potentially to a spike in mental health issues.

We also fear the rapid rise in internet access has contributed to dropping standards in educational areas like science and mathematics.

It comes back to common sense — and, for parents and caregivers, the need to balance an acceptance of the importance of the internet with the (relative) control they have over how, and how much, their teens access it.

Talk to them, share advice, provide encouragement into off-screen activities — but take that phone away if all else fails.

AND ANOTHER THING

There remains a great sense of shock following Monday’s horrific scenes at Countdown in Dunedin, when four people were left with stab wounds.

The supermarket has become one of the great symbols of a civilised society. It is where families do their weekly grocery shop, where students look for the good deals, where schoolkids grab a snack, where office workers pop out for a quick lunch.

It is also where people work, and expect to do so in peace and safety.

It is time to cross our fingers all the stabbing victims make swift and full recoveries, and to offer all the support we can to everyone affected by the incident.

Then, maybe, there is an opportunity as a society to think about how to stem the tide of abuse and anger directed towards supermarket employees. They do not deserve anything but our respect.

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