Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children, by Michel Desmurget (Polity, 350 pp., $24.95)

In the good old days, the triad of family, school, and street maintained the upbringing of youngsters. The Internet first replaced the street. Then, it conquered schools. Now, it’s swallowing families. The triad of upbringing has become screen, screen, screen.

In 2019, French neuroscientist Michel Desmurget published a book with a straightforward title: La Fabrique du Crétin Digital (The Digital Cretin Factory). The book resonated, and it has now been translated into English, though with the more moderate title of Screen Damage. The book’s length is its principal drawback, as it marshals an enormous number of studies to prove claims, some of which have already been proved or are otherwise self-evident. But amid the many references, Desmurget advances vitally important points.

Our children are immersed in screens much more than we think. In their first two years, Desmurget shows, kids spend, on average, nearly 50 minutes daily on screens. Screen time reaches two hours and 45 minutes between the ages of two and eight, four hours and 45 minutes between the ages of eight and 12, and an astonishing seven hours and 15 minutes between the ages of 13 and 18. That represents 20 percent, 32 percent, and 45 percent of kids’ waking time, respectively.

According to Desmurget, all-permeating screen usage supports the myth of “digital natives”—a new generation of kids so digitally proficient that education must accommodate their excellent digital skills and persistent digital needs. The media and tech companies maintain this myth, he argues, and educators accept it as a public demand for even more screens in schools. Instead of adapting digital technologies to the needs of education, they adapt education to the needs of digital technologies.

The result is a self-reinforcing loop. Digital technologies rapidly proliferate to satisfy the alleged needs of digital natives, and digital natives grow even more digital as they are increasingly immersed in screens. Meantime, as Desmurget shows, the more that countries invest in “information and communication technologies for education,” the more pupil performance falls. Not just academic failure but arrested cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development are the consequences.

Many adults by default think that if, say, Microsoft Word helps researchers, writers, and journalists, it can also assist students in learning. But the opposite is true, writes Desmurget. Studies show that “children who learn to write on a computer, with a keyboard, have a much harder time remembering and recognizing letters than those who learn with their hand, a pencil and a sheet of paper.” Instead of preserving their authority and maintaining autonomy from digital encroachments, families and schools have become the main source of the digital pollution of childhood. The positive effect of screens, even when employed for educational purposes, is either negligible or non-detectable; the damage is huge. Even more devastating is the harm of recreational digital use. Meantime, many studies and experiments, including the notorious worldwide program “One Laptop per Child,” have shown that whatever educational intentions drive adults to give digital devices to children, kids immediately switch to an “orgy of recreational usage,” as Desmurget calls it.

The time spent with screens in early age is simply “stolen time” from kids’ development. Adults usually tolerate the waste of their time on gadgets, as they think they can compensate for this loss through later efforts. It does not work this way for children. Early cognitive development heavily relies on the plasticity of the young brain. “The great periods of brain plasticity . . . do not last forever,” writes Desmurget. “Once closed, they can no longer be resuscitated. What has been spoiled is forever lost.”

For example, basic language skills form in the first years of life. Live interaction with adults makes children’s language incomparably richer than any screen substitutes, even presumably educational ones. The reason is simple: adults randomly use a vast range of words and syntactic structures, while educational TV programs tend to employ “age-appropriate,” meaning artificially reduced, vocabulary and syntax. Adults also routinely correct kids, pushing them toward language conventions, both normative and marginal. This provides much wider situational speech diversity than any well-designed program could ever do.

A lack of real human communication in the first four years of life irreparably affects development because the window of proper language acquisition narrows and eventually closes after that. If screens occupy 20 percent to 30 percent of kids’ waking time at this age, they subtract a respective share of cognitive development, giving back nothing in exchange except for health issues, aggressiveness, and anxiety.

Most adults see gadgets as a common facet of modern life and simply don’t realize how harmful such an attitude is for children. In fact, parents have no legitimate excuse to allow children younger than six to use screens. The only real explanation is their desire to get some child-free time for themselves. Later, in adolescence, children experience peer pressure, which makes digital negotiations a real headache for parents. But in the preschool years, external digital seduction is minimal. At this age, parents are solely responsible for the digital pollution of childhood. Desmurget believes that screens should not be permitted for kids under age six at all, and that they should be permitted only for up to 60 minutes per day for those aged six to 12, including TV.

Digital usage is becoming a new dimension of social inequality. Desmurget highlights how many tech-industry leaders keep their own children away from the same digital products that they market to the world. He quotes another’s observation: “The moral of the story is: you can put your children in front of screens, but those who make the screens will continue to put their children in front of books.”

Long gone are the times when digital access was a question of affordability. The “digital divide” once meant less digital engagement for kids from poorer families. Now, the situation is reversed: underprivileged kids are over-digitalized. Numerous studies show that underprivileged children spend more time with screens than their privileged counterparts, with respective negative outcomes in academic performance and health.

One can speculate about differences in parenting styles, but the facts show the accelerating detrimental impact of screens on disadvantaged children. For example, nearly 90 percent of underprivileged toddlers watch TV every day; 65 percent of them use mobile devices. In general, children from such backgrounds register a recreational digital-consumption rate almost twice as high as their wealthier counterparts. Digital overuse is poised to make disadvantaged children even more disadvantaged in the future. On the other hand, while kids from better-off families waste less time on digital devices, the value of each “stolen hour” for them is higher, as they could have spent this time on richer and more formative experiences: reading, verbal interactions, musical practices, sports, or artistic and cultural outings.

Studies also detect some gender disparity in digital effects on adolescents. The harm of social media to teen girls was much discussed in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when political elites were looking for a means to discipline social media platforms. Desmurget shows that teen girls indeed spend more time (90 minutes daily) on social media than do teen boys (51 minutes). Teen boys, meantime, are significantly more susceptible to video games (2 hours and 17 minutes daily) than are girls (47 minutes). But video games don’t cause as much trouble for political elites as do social media, so this issue has not gotten as much attention.

Desmurget’s book leaves some room for criticism. For example, he does not differentiate between passive and active screen usage, instead analyzing the effect of TV screens and touchscreens in aggregate. Perhaps this owes to the fact that his collection of reviewed studies covers the period since the late 2000s, when touchscreens did not yet dominate digital use. But TV addiction seems increasingly irrelevant now, when children and adolescents have migrated to mobile devices. Touchscreens offer a completely different mechanism of addiction, instantly and constantly rewarding users for a mere click, thus altering young people’s behavioral fundamentals.

Another point that might deserve criticism is Desmurget’s rejection of the very phenomenon of digital natives. He suggests that education does not need to accommodate any special digital needs of children because there is nothing special about kids of the digital era that would require digitalization of schools. I think this is the right call, but it is based on the wrong premise. Families and schools should abstain from the digitalization of childhood and education not because there is no such phenomenon as the “digitally modified generation” but precisely because digital technologies modify and harm children’s brains. Kids should encounter the digital as late as possible, when their cognitive and behavioral basics are more or less shaped. Digital skills will come by themselves; the best minds in Silicon Valley are working on it. The vacuous concept of “media literacy” should not be about how to use devices but about how not to use them.

Writing for City Journal, I have advanced the idea of “media recapitulation”: the necessity for an individual of a young age to repeat sequentially all the stages of early media development of the human species. Humankind was not born digital; it has matured through tactility, instrumentality, orality, literacy, electricity, and eventually, digitality. Kids should repeat, in a condensed form, the same path to be properly prepared for the digital age. The digital age is the adult age, both for individuals and humankind. In practice, media recapitulation means no screens before books—the same conclusion that Desmurget reaches.

Finally, Desmurget’s assumption that public officials promote digitalization of education because they want to replace teachers with digital programs and thus reduce expenditures on education seems mistaken. I am not sure that elected officials are guided by the desire to cut jobs and confront the unions. Bureaucrats, too, are rather vitally interested in boosting, not reducing, digital expenditures in education in order to secure their own significance. Time after time, politicians and education bureaucrats call for more digital programs and devices in schools not because they pursue the economy of budgets but because they are trapped in a sort of regulatory capture. If Big Tech needs to sell more, bureaucrats need to regulate more; they naturally combine their efforts in persuading society that it needs more of what they sell and regulate, respectively.

The alignment of public and private interests has made bureaucrats digital sales managers. The education system has become one of the biggest distribution networks for everything digital. The Covid-19 pandemic encouraged additional budgeting for distance learning and digital technologies in schools. The combination of these factors suppresses any objective evaluation of the harms and risks that digital pollution poses for childhood.

Political competition or public debate could have overturned this trap of regulatory leniency, but this has not happened yet. That is why Screen Damage is such an important book. Some may find its conclusions about digital harm for children and adolescents too radical. But they look radical only until people realize that the digital has a different effect on kids than on adults.

The starting point for discussing the digital failure of education may come from an unexpected source. The rapid proliferation of AI-writing (ChatGPT and other large language models) brings “digital educators” to a dead end. Immersed in everything digital, pupils readdress their essays and homework assignments to AI. This is a logical outcome of total digitalization. But it makes educational efforts pointless. Teachers across the country are bewildered. Many already are retrieving pre-digital methods, such as writing essays on paper in class. The very nature of education, when encountering the ultimate digitalization in the form of AI-generating texts, rebels against it and calls for a return to basics.

But the principal responsibility to protect children from digital damage lies with families. Desmurget concludes with a glimpse of hope and inspiration. He recalls that he once met a former pupil, one of his most brilliant, who told him that smartphones and video games had indeed caused serious tension between him and his parents. But now, as an adult, he was grateful to them for not “giving up.” The struggle of parents is real, but it will—and must—pay off.

Photo: gaiamoments/iStock


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