Plugging-in to the Research on Screen-Time and Child Development

The prevalence of screen-time is a huge topic of debate in our current society, especially when it comes to kids and parenting. Should kids have access to screens? How much screen time is too much? Are there really negative effects, or are they over-stated? Will your kid feel (or actually be) left out if they don’t get an iPhone in 4th grade? Will that have negative effects? And so the screen anxiety can go on and on in circles until you distract yourself with a funny tweet.  

This anxiety is not unfounded. Numerous studies show that with higher daily screen-time expenditure kids show decreases in aerobic fitness, academic performance, and social success, and may be more likely to become obese or develop anxiety and depression (1).

Recent research suggests that the average American teenager may spend an average of over 8 hours a day online, with their younger counterparts (ages 8-12) averaging around 6 hours each day (2). This is an unprecedented amount of time devoted to screen-based activities. Though Millennials (born ~1981-1996) are often associated with the rise of social media and smartphones, Gen Z (born ~1997-present) is actually the first generation to spend their whole lives in the warm blue-light glow of iPhones and other such devices (3). The iPhone turned 12 years old this year, meaning that our country’s pre-teens have never lived in a time without smartphones. While it’s fun to chuckle at these kinds of generational comparisons while perusing Beloit’s yearly Mindset List, this influx of devices and all the marketing schemes and social platforms they bring with them pose some really challenging questions regarding development and brain science. Parents and educators alike raise concerns about kids’ time-consuming digital lives, and, as it turns out, many teens worry about it too (4). But spending our days locked into our screens is pretty much unavoidable for the typical American. We are far beyond the point of asking whether kids should have screen time, and on to asking how much is too much.

One of the primary concerns for screen-based leisure activities is the connection to other behaviors that can be harmful to health and development. For example, more screen time often comes with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. The amount of time spent in front of a screen during childhood and adolescence can be an alarmingly accurate predictor of obesity later in life, a relationship researchers have been interested in since long before the advent of smartphones (5). Recent studies demonstrate a strong relationship between the number of hours of television watched each day and being overweight (6). As such, longer hours in front of the television or other devices can also be linked to obesity-related health problems, including high blood pressure, cardiac risk, high cholesterol, insulin resistance, and prediabetes (7). Not only does screen time increase sedentary behaviors, but also encourages overeating and often crowds young and impressionable minds with marketing for high-calorie, low-nutrient food options (8).

Excess screen time has also been shown to affect sleep duration and quality (9). Researchers hypothesize that this connection is a product of multiple factors, including blue-light exposure before bedtime, excess mental stimulation, and/or delayed bedtimes from phone and tablet use (10). Particularly when used at night before bedtime, screen exposure (from any device) has been shown to increase the odds that an individual will have a poor night’s sleep (11). Not getting enough in quantity or having poor quality of sleep can have serious impacts on academic performance, as well as overall health and development (12).

Aside from any physical side effects of living in a digital paradise, excessive screen time can bring with it some concerning emotional outcomes. Even at early ages, research demonstrates that higher levels of screen time have implications for child development. A study of Norwegian children showed that more screen time in 4-year-old children was correlated with lower emotional understanding two years later (6 years), suggesting that when prominent screen-leisure time replaces face-to-face interaction, it inhibits children’s emotional development. Further, a follow-up study showed that the presence of a television in a 6-year-old child’s bedroom negatively predicted their emotional understanding two years later (8 years) (13). Some research also suggests that there could be correlations between screen-time and self-esteem during pre-adolescent development. Researchers found that measures of all screen time — including cell phones, televisions, video games, and tablets — was negatively correlated with self-esteem in pre-teens, particularly in female participants. However, this relationship is likely mediated through other factors, including family relationships, friendships, etc. (14).

These correlations in early childhood suggest continued exposure to large amounts of screen-based leisure time may have more serious implications as development progresses. A 2015 study suggests that duration of screen time during the middle and high school years is correlated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. Broken down further, this study shows that research participants who spent more time playing computer and video games were increasingly likely to show symptoms of depression and have increased anxiety (15). More research is necessary to understand these correlations — is a higher amount of screen time a risk factor for causing anxiety and depression? Or do kids at risk for anxiety and depression spend more time on screens? It is likely that both causal pathways are involved, but the relationship is not yet clear. Adding fuel to the screen-time fire, as many inflammatory news cycles have claimed, there is some evidence to suggest that consuming screen-based violent media (computer & video games, movies, TV shows, etc.) can have short- and long-term effects, including increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviors, desensitization to violence, and decreased empathy for others (16).

All of this research can feel overwhelming, making some of us want to take drastic measures to decrease the presence of technology and screens in our daily lives. But screens are not all bad. In fact, emerging technologies offer unique opportunities for education, research, medical care, and more. Digital resources in classrooms allow students access to a myriad of resources, perspectives, and interactive platforms to expand and enrich their education (17). Additionally, as we move towards an ever-more digitally connected society, developing digital literacy and learning skills like coding, web-based research strategies, social media savvy, and more, are essential experiences for young people during development. Not to mention, restricting media resources too much can also have negative effects related to kids’ social lives and the adverse effects of harsh parenting. Though many global conversations surround the negative effects that screen time can pose for our families and children, research suggests that when talking to your own family about screen time usage, you shouldn’t only harp on the negative — recognize all of the positive your child may see in their screen time. Then, talk about some of your concerns, and involve your child in setting screen-time rules for the family (18).

As it turns out, one of the best predictors of a child’s screen time is the amount of time their parents spend consuming screen-media (19). It seems kids are more inclined to do what their parents do, not what they say. Furthermore, families that use screen time as a reward or punishment for certain behaviors, grades, completing chores, and other family-related compromises are actually increasing their kids’ overall screen usage by an average of 20 minutes per day (20). Though that might not sound like a lot in one sitting, those 20 minutes can add up quickly across weeks and months. Your kids will do what is modeled for them. So, if your family decides to set some screen-time limits or guidelines, it might be most effective to make rules for every member of the family, and stick to them!

Cutting screens out of our children’s lives completely would be equivalent to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater — it’s not plausible in this day and age to operate in an all-or-nothing mindset. Instead, it’s all a matter of being intentional, both in the guidelines we develop and through the examples we set. There are a myriad of ways to limit screen time and/or be deliberate about when and how we incorporate it in our lives. Choosing how to do so involves value-based decisions that will look different for every family and individual. There is no one right or wrong way to monitor and assess the time you or your family spends immersed in a screen, but there are many tools to help you make these kinds of decisions and have these conversations with your family. Screen time monitoring systems incorporated into phones and tablets can give you a weekly report of how much screen time you’ve used, or allow you to set timers for certain apps — meaning you can limit how much time per day (or week) you spend scrolling through Instagram or watching YouTube videos. Parental controls on your children’s devices and/or through your internet server offer even more options for enforcing screen time rules. And, it’s important to remember that not all screen time is the same. If your child is a burgeoning computer developer and spends 4 hours/day learning how to code, that’s a different situation than a child that spends 4 hours/day watching mindless TV and eating potato chips. The same holds true for habits — occasional binges won’t harm your kids’ development, but the habits they fall into on a daily basis may have longer-lasting effects (21). Unfortunately, all this technology is so new that scientists just don’t have all the answers about how screens may affect development. For now, the best we can do is mitigate and minimize risks for our kids (22), find positive ways to interact with our screens, and keep that anxiety at bay! You can check your Twitter, now — a little avoidance is okay, after all.   

To learn more about how screens may affect your child’s brain, check out this video.