How Bad is Screen Time for Kids, Really?

Even most teens admit they get too much. But research on the ill effects is not conclusive.

Robert Roy Britt
Apr 5 · 6 min read

Just before he turned 18, our youngest son deleted some social media apps from his iPhone and decided to spend more time doing things and less time watching people do things. He hasn’t given up his smartphone or his PS4, but suddenly he’s fishing, hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing (indoors, thankfully). Successful parenting? Actually, we had pretty much nothing to do with it. He just got tired of staring into the electronic teenage wasteland. Regardless, we are understandably delighted.

The evils of screen time for toddlers, adolescents and teens are so well documented that cutting it back has become widely accepted as a worthy if not critical parenting goal. But new research questions some of the assumptions about the risks of screen time, at least insofar as mental health is concerned. Another recent study suggests that trying to limit your kids’ screen time — a battle worthy of “Fortnight,” as many parents know — can actually backfire.

There’s zero question that time spent on social media, video games and other e-pursuits is prevalent among youth. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that children spend an average of 7 hours a day with electronic media.

Even kids themselves say it’s gotten out of hand— 54 percent of teens age 13 to 17 say they spend too much time on their phones, according to the Pew Research Center, and 52 percent have taken steps to cut back. (Interestingly, parents are less likely to see their own screen time as a problem.)

Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center

A healthier percentage of parents think their teens spend too much time in front of screens. And many of them worry about the potential effects.

Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center

Extensive screen time has crept into all corners of the society. A study last year of 550 rural US students found that most spent more time with electronic media than they did outdoors.

For the record, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media for children under 18 months, limited time (spent together) for kids 18 to 24 months, and just 1 hour a day for children ages 2 to 5. But for working parents or any parent hoping to retain a shred of sanity, that practically implies simply not having smartphones or iPads or TVs in the house.

Ill Effects?

Studies have linked excess screen time to mental and physical health risks and poorer academic performance. Here is a sampling:

  • A study reported in January in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, looking at data on 2,400 children, found that more screen time at ages 2 and 3 was linked to poorer performance on measures of development at ages 3 and 5.
  • Daily screen time of 3 hours or more was linked in one study of 4,495 children age 9 and 10 to an increase in several risk factors associated with diabetes, including body fat and insulin resistance. “Our findings suggest that reducing screen time may be beneficial in reducing type 2 diabetes risk factors, the researchers wrote in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
  • More than 2 hours of weekend screen time was linked to decreased bone density in boys age 15–17 in a study published in BMJ Open.
  • Adolescents spending more than 7 hours on screens daily were twice as likely as those spending 1 hour or less to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to a study last year in Preventive Medicine Reports.
  • Brain function was better for children who spent no more than 2 hours on screens and who got sufficient sleep and physical activity, according to a study in the Lancet.
  • A study back in 2015 found that each hour of screen time notched kids grades down notably.

But while much of this research may be worthy, it’s important to keep in mind that the links do not show cause-and-effect: Perhaps children prone to anxiety or depression are more likely to get glued to a video game, for example. And much of the research relies on self-reporting of times and habits, known to be notoriously inaccurate.

In fact, a new study calls into question much of the previous research for those reasons.

“The current level of psychological evidence… is far removed from the certainty voiced by many commentators,” the researchers write this month in the journal Psychological Science. “There is little clear-cut evidence that screen time decreases adolescent well-being, and most psychological results are based on single-country, exploratory studies that rely on inaccurate but popular self-report measures of digital-screen engagement.”

These researchers, looking at 5,363 youth from the US, UK and Ireland, concluded that screen time among adolescents had little to do with their mental health, and that screen time before bed had no clear associations with lower well-being.

In a nutshell, the researchers relied not just on self-reporting of screen time after the fact, but employed time-use diaries to glean a more accurate picture. They examined psychosocial functioning, depression symptoms, self-esteem and mood based not just on what the kids said but on information provided by their caregivers.

“Implementing best practice statistical and methodological techniques we found little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement and adolescent well-being,” said Amy Orben of the University of Oxford.

Is it the last word on the topic? Surely not. But it’s cause for contemplation by any parent stressing about how to get kids off their devices.

Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center

One new study, albeit small and not dramatic in its findings, also questions the wisdom of using screen time for reward and punishment. The Canadian research, detailed in December in the journal BMC Obesity, involved the parents of 62 children between 18 months and 5 years old. The parents were asked about how they monitor screen time. On average, these kids spent nearly 1.5 hours with screens on weekdays and more than 2 hours on weekends.

The kids whose parents used screen time as an inducement to control behavior spent 20 minutes more with screens on weekends than the other children.

“It’s similar to how we shouldn’t use sugary treats as rewards because by doing so we can heighten the attraction to them,” said Jess Haines, a professor of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph. “When you give food as a reward it makes children like the carrot less and the cake more. Same thing with screen time.”

It’s also worth noting that regardless of the risks, screens are here to stay. Figuring out how to integrate them into young lives may be as important as simply trying to limit their use. Lincoln Larson, a researcher at North Carolina State University who led the study finding rural kids spend more time with screens than outdoors, is pragmatic.

“We’re not going back in time when it comes to nature and electronic media. They’re now intertwined,” Larson said. “The question becomes, how do we find ways to effectively integrate nature and technology? Can we design programs or experiences that appeal to young people’s inherent love for technology, but also get them outdoors to improve to their lifelong health?”

Or maybe, just maybe, we could all worry a little less. The kids may not be as bad off as we think, and in many cases, they’re just following our example.

LUMINATE

Exploring the human condition and ways to improve it.

Robert Roy Britt

Written by

Explainer of things, former editor-in-chief of Live Science and Space .com, author of the science thriller “5 Days to Landfall.”

LUMINATE

LUMINATE

Exploring the human condition and ways to improve it.

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