Square-Eyed Boy: BBC Zooms In on the Impact of Screen Time for Kids

But does the parable only tell part of the story?

"Screens! It's what's on them that counts." 

That's the takeaway from BBC Creative's "Square-Eyed Boy," an elaborate stop-motion film created with BlinkInk.

The BBC hopes to "add nuance to the debate surrounding screen time." The premise is simple, and builds on a threat designed to scare children: "You know what they say about watching screens—You'll get square eyes!" 

A boy's eyes really do go square at the start of the film, making him a target for every prejudice people have about screen-time. This creates a nice setup for what "Square-Eyed Boy" may actually be taking in with those huge orbs: beauty, education, more nuanced perspectives and a generous understanding of the world. The ad's closing line begins this post.

"Square-Eyed Boy" operates principally as an awareness campaign for people who can't mind their business, per the pressie: "The film tackles the judgments surrounding screen usage, depicting the boy and his family as objects of scrutiny and dismissal by onlookers." The framework shows how the BBC's "age-appropriate and thoughtfully curated content" can benefit children, yielding not square eyes, but well-rounded outlooks.

Still, there's a bit of dissimulation here we'd like to address, because this optimistic message combines a few ideas better dealt with apart. Our general feeling is that it doesn't add clarity to conversations; it instead dumbs down some potent notions ... surprising, from the BBC.

Debates exist surrounding screen time, but none as black and white as this simple storyline makes out. We can think of two reasons why adults may want to discourage kids, as a matter of course, from spending too much time in front of screens: They do take up tons of time. This isn't addressed, and is even treated as a non-issue. Our "Square-Eyed Boy" spends literally all day in front of devices, mediating all interactions through pixels and digital audio. The second reason is the belief that what kids interact with onscreen may corrupt them. This topic is addressed, but not in a satisfying way.

These things occasionally overlap, but don't belong together by default.

Let's start with the first issue: As of 2019 (before Covid lockdown!), the average American adult was said to spend 12 hours in front of a screen. This behavior impacts children, who, by 8-10 years old, already enjoy an average of six hours of screen time a day, per 2023 statistics. These issues aren't an everyday person's fault. Social media is designed to be addictive. Phones are addictive. Video games are addictive—a fact so well understood that, two years ago, China imposed bans on how often children could play them. Even bad news is addictive; while Square-Eyed Boy may indeed watch endless videos and streams out of concern for others and the world around him, that doesn't mean everything he's absorbing is great for his mental health or arming him for life.

So, when people fret about screens taking up too big a chunk in a kid's life, those worries are legit, and shouldn't be treated like a Luddite rebellion against some fabulous future. This doesn't make screens bad, and it also doesn't mean every adult's snap judgment about your kids' screen time (or your parenting) is justified. It just means our relationship to habit-forming technology must be managed ... which is like exercising constraint in a casino, because you're literally working against some of the world's best neuroscientists and behavioral engineers. (It goes without saying that their goal is not to educate people. It's to make money.)

That's thing one—as we mentioned, totally disregarded by the ad, at least insofar as the concern may be valid.

Thing two is this idea that what's onscreen could corrupt kids. Often, this belief comes out in ways as silly as the notion that playing Dungeons and Dragons could make kids Satanists. This is especially true where video games are concerned. Last month, a teenager was shot dead in France by a cop, sparking riots in the country for a host of complex reasons: Among them colonial history, racism, and the imbalance of power between police and ordinary people, particularly when they're not considered white. President Emmanuel Macron wrote the riots off by blaming bad parenting and violent video games. This statement was so perversely obtuse that it cast into relief how stupid the vast majority of "blame video game" arguments are, especially as scapegoats for serious epidemics of violence within a given population.

With that said, there's a lot of weird stuff online that looks like kids stuff but isn't really, and for which parents should be vigilant, because nobody really knows what that stuff is, and probably nobody should be zoning out in front of it, especially not your toddler.

This brings us back to the BBC's closing line: "Screens! It's what's on them that counts." The case they're making is that there's good, curated content out there that educates and enriches kids. Instead of providing rules of thumb for identifying material like that, describing how one might creatively leverage it in busy schedules, or parsing out how this content may meaningfully differ between computers, TVs and phones, it lets itself off the hook by suggesting that when in doubt, you can just put on the BBC.

It's what's on the screens that counts, right?

That the time-management thing is sidestepped entirely is not a nitpick in the void; it's a wilful omission. In details accompanying the press release, BBC Children's and Education cited a UK-wide survey that found that 79 percent of parents feel kids are using screens more often since the pandemic's start. Instead of unpacking this datapoint, the creative team instead chose to qualify it, which forms the basis for this campaign: "While 67 percent [of] parents feel concerned about what their child is watching, parents do see real value in screens, with 65 percent agreeing that they have the ability to foster creativity and communication."

The decision to place weight on one piece of data, and not the other, makes strategic sense. But its end result, however charming (we love that Square-Eyed Boy is wearing Crocs), also feels gaslighty. We know, and we'd probably all prefer, for kids to be in front of qualitative material. But to argue that this is basically all that matters, when it comes to screens and kids, is to dismiss a bunch of other complex issues that caregivers are right to think about.

So we also wince at the press release's gleeful assertion that it's "nuancing" a "debate." There's no nuance here, and what debate? It mostly feels like BBC Creative inserted itself into a misguided caregiving moment ("You'll get square eyes!") and just yelled "Put on the BBC, LOL!"

"Square-Eyed Boy" is part of a bigger campaign that will include social media and out-of-home advertising, designed to "help guide parents." Additional BBC editorial content will support it.

Check out the credits in these image captures (click to enlarge):

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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