Finding the right balance

April 1, 2024

CMA’s Vice President, Prof. Wayne Warburton, discusses ‘Finding the right balance’.

There is often a disconnect between what science finds about a phenomenon, and the public discourse around that phenomenon.

Sometimes this is because those with business or ideological interests work hard to influence the public narrative in a self-interested way, sowing seeds of doubt through well-resourced but biased public commentaries. Think tobacco or climate science, where the views of a small minority of sceptical scientists, often funded by those with a vested interest, have been given disproportionately large amounts of public exposure to create the impression that the scientific community is evenly divided. Then the public discourse becomes something like ‘I am pretty sure that there are lots of doubts about whether smoking is bad for you – lots of scientists disagree that it is.’ (And on we go, fag in mouth.) There are numerous examples.

Sometimes it is because those who work in the public or policy space want to be seen a certain way. Maybe they are afraid of being seen as old fashioned or want to be seen as up-to-date and embracing the modern world; maybe they have learned that a poll or focus group has shown one position to be more popular than another; maybe political support from a voter base would be compromised if a particular point of view is expressed; or maybe funding for a service may be withdrawn or reduced if a certain public position is taken. Whatever the reason, disconnects between scientific findings and the public discourse on key social issues are rarely in the public interest.

Rather, the public interest is better served by honest and objective public discussion around important social issues, discussion that is informed by both science and a desire to find the most sensible pathways forward.

In my mind, one area where we currently need to find a way forward is in how to sensibly manage digital media. Why? Because on average, school-aged young people spend more time with recreational screen media than any other activity. In US teens, it was last measured at 8 hours and 39 minutes a day. Recent Australian studies have found similar amounts. More time than schooling, more time than outdoors activities and sport, and often more time than sleep. I do not know a single paediatrician or psychologist or GP who thinks this is a ‘sensible’ amount, and this is the average.

If our young people are currently spending so much time with recreational screen media, then it is crucial that parents, policy makers and professionals work together to create a public discourse that helps Australians find a sensible and healthy way for our children to negotiate the digital world. That is, one that maximises the benefits and minimises the likelihood of problems.

To this end, Mic Moshel and I recently put forward ways in which we think parents can help their children develop a ‘healthy media diet’ and really, it is very similar to helping your child develop a healthy food diet. Moderation in amount, more of the good stuff and less of the unhelpful stuff, and content should be right for the child’s age.

What this approach recognises is more than 70 years of research detailing that mass media has many benefits for children and adults, but also finding that there are risks. For our children to have a healthy media diet, we need to know:

  • What are the potential benefits and how are they best derived?
  • What are potential risks? Which children are more at risk? In what ways can we prevent or minimise those risks, or address them if needed?

In my view, the public dialogue about digital media in Australia is often bent towards the many (real) advantages of digital media, not the well-researched risks. Numerous public statements by policy makers and commentators spruik the advantages of digital media, but are silent about the risks, or minimise the risks to the point of triviality.

In my view this doesn’t help very much. The benefits are real, but so are the potential risks, some of them substantial. For example, I work with young people who have addiction-like screen disorders and the effects can be profound – missing years of school, serious problems with mental and physical health, violent behaviour, loss of confidence to negotiate the real world, loss of grey matter and cognitive function, and loss of relationships and opportunities (among others). Not all risks are this extreme, but as we get more and more brain imaging data, longitudinal data and mental and physical health data, it becomes increasingly clear that healthy screen use is needed for healthy brain development, healthy cognitive development, healthy social and emotional development and a healthy body.

So maybe the time is right to find the right balance. To have a public discourse about healthy development in a digital world that is free of commercial and political and ideological interests. That acknowledges both the benefits and risks. That looks for policies and approaches and practices that foster healthy media use, but also prevent risks and provide support where problems arise.


Moshel, M. L., Warburton, W. A., Batchelor, J. Bennett, J. M., & Koh, K. (2023). Neuropsychological deficits in disordered screen-use behaviours: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuropsychology Review. Online ahead of print.

Warburton, W. A., & Anderson, C. A. (2022). Children, Impact of media on. In L. Kurtz [Ed.] Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict (Vol. 4)(pp. 195-208). 820195-4.00026-1. Elsevier, Academic Press.

Warburton W. A., & Moshel, M. (2024). A healthy media diet. In C. Wright, L. Ey, M. Hopper & W. Warburton [Eds.]. Getting the best from the digital world: Media literacy across the lifespan (pp. 171-188). Cambridge Scholars.

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