Navigating the debate on the effects of screen time

When it comes to understanding the impact of screen time, even the experts can’t seem to agree. Every week it seems there’s a new study declaring the negative effects of screen time — obesity, mental health problems, and educational failure — which are quickly disputed by others in the field.

At the beginning of 2019, experts at The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) reviewed research in the BMJ Open medical journal that called for limits on screen time after linking it to excess body fat, unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms, and lower quality of life. The RCPCH determined there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” for children’s health.

“Too much screen time is linked to delays in young children achieving their developmental milestones”

Twitter: JAMA Pediatrics @JAMAPediatrics

“False Links Between Screen Time and Cognitive Development by President Elect Mark Smyth @psychpolis & Professor Chris Fergusson”

Twitter: Psychological Society of Ireland‏ @PsychSocIreland.

Studies on the effects of screen time on child development may be alarming, but there are limitations to their research, and findings often don’t account for other contributing elements such as different socioeconomic statuses. Mashable looked at some of these factors, including the rapidly changing landscape of electronic devices, and noted that while most parents would assume “screen time” refers to all devices, most studies actually only look at television.

Dr. Mark Smyth of the Psychological Society of Ireland highlighted the methodological flaws of a recent JAMA Pediatrics study that associated screen time with decreased cognitive development in young children. Dr. Smyth pointed out that self-reported data from parents was not as objective as measures obtained in a clinical setting, and researchers studied screen use broadly without considering the type or quality of the programming, which would affect cognitive development.

In statistical terms, Dr. Smyth noted that the size of the correlation in using screens to predict cognitive delays in toddlers was actually 0.36%, a minutely better chance than a coin toss. He challenged the media to report critically on future studies and cautioned parents against being misinformed by poor quality research.

Differing guidelines

Girl using tablet
Photo credit: Hal Gatewood / Unsplash

Screens are a part of life. In the U.S., 88 % of teenagers, ages 13 to 17, have access to a cell phone, and 87% of teens have access to a desktop or laptop and 58% to a tablet. Kids and even adults need to know how to maintain a healthy media diet.

With parents turning to health professionals for advice, there’s pressure on industry professionals to develop guidelines for screen use. In response, the Academic Pediatric Association (APA) guidelines suggest developing a family media plan.

The APA advises that parents of children 18 to 24 months of age use high-quality programming with their children and limit screen time to one hour for ages 2 to 5. For kids ages 6 and older, parents should maintain open communication, designate media-free times, and make sure kids are balancing their time using media with other activities.

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) advised against screen time for children younger than two years and recommended children ages 2 to 5 have less than 60 minutes of screen use per day. It cautioned parents to ensure that screen time isn’t reinforcing sedentary behaviors.

Citing the lack of evidence that screen time was harmful to children’s health, the RCPCH decided not to set time limits.

So if the experts can’t agree, should parents worry about giving their kids too much time in front of TVs, phones, computers, and tablets? The answer is, it depends.

Screens are a source of further learning

students on desktop computer
Photo credit: Tomasz Mikolajczyk / pixabay

“Not all screen-time is equal and should not be treated as such.”

— Dr. Mark Smyth

When it comes to screen use, the quality of the content is more important than the quantity. Spending time watching videos on YouTube to learn about the solar system doesn’t have the same positive impact as spending an equal amount of time scrolling through social media.

Likewise, there are a number of digital media, apps, and games that support exploration and creativity, complement traditional learning, and build on 21st-century skills. Playing games on a site like iCivics leads to real-world understanding of how governments work. Joining an online community like Project Noah inspires kids to take part in biodiversity research. Apps like Star Walk 2 can teach facts and figures while kids stargaze.

As for the risks, anything in excess has the potential to be harmful. One of the biggest issues identified by the AAP, CPS, and RCPCH is when screen use displaces elements that are critical to personal health, wellness, and learning — like physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face interactions.

Limits or no limits, researchers agree that high-quality, age-appropriate content, including educational programming, can support early language and literacy for children and promote cognitive development, including positive racial attitudes and imaginative play. Interactive media can also help children retain information.

Parents are the experts

family looking digital tablet
Photo credit: freepik

While researchers may still be divided about how much screen time is too much, they do agree more objective, quality, scientific research needs to be done. They also agree on avoiding screens one hour before bedtime and that parents are in the best position to decide what is best for their child.

Balance is key. If your child isn’t sleeping well, getting enough to eat, or finding time to play or study, you may want to put limits on their screen time. But if your family’s health, education, and playtime needs are being met, then screen time isn’t an issue.

If you need guidance to make informed decisions about your family’s media use, the RCPCH’s checklist may help. They suggest making changes if you are unhappy with any of your answers to these four questions:

  • Is your family’s screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?
  • Does it interfere with sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

Families who decide to reduce screen time can follow the RCPCH’s guidelines:

  • Discuss screen-use boundaries as a family and make sure everyone understands them.
  • Be aware of what apps and networks your kids are using, but don’t monitor every detail of online activity.
  • Children learn by example, so think about your own media use and which behaviors you want them to model.
  • Online interaction has its value, but it’s through regular interaction with the physical world that kids develop the skills and resilience.
  • There also is evidence that eating during screen time can result in unhealthy habits, so being snack-aware is important.
  • Protect sleep by shutting off all screens an hour before bedtime.

The free Family Media Use Plan tool and media time calculator can help parents determine how much screen time their child can have along with other activities, including sleep, school, and family time.

Photo credit:  Igor Starkov / Unsplash

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