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.

CSRP publishes paper assessing intervention follow-up data

In 2003, researchers heading the Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP) pioneered an experimental preschool intervention that aimed to reduce behavioral problems and boost academic achievement in classrooms by targeting students’ executive function and emotional regulation skills. This year-long intervention took place in Head Start centers located in low-income areas of Chicago. The CSRP intervention targeted student behavior and teacher behavior-management through professional-development workshops and provision of extra support for classrooms, teachers, and students.

In the following years, researchers have maintained contact with the participants, periodically assessing their progress to determine whether the intervention resulted in long-term effects. CSRP researchers initially chose to target executive function and associated self-regulation abilities in the hope that development of these skills at an early age would alter long-term developmental trajectories. In targeting self-regulation, including facets of emotional regulation, researchers were hoping to provide students skills and capabilities that would help propel them to success in their future academic pursuits.

In 2018, CSRP researchers published a paper assessing follow-up data obtained 10 to 11 years after the Head Start preschool-intervention. The researchers again measured the same qualities — executive function, academic achievement, emotional regulation, and student behavior — swapping the measures used during preschool for age and field-appropriate standards (given a decade’s progress in research best-practice). Though prior follow-up assessments have been undertaken on a small-scale for CSRP, this publication marks the first attempt to assess the impacts of the CSRP-intervention on all initially-targeted areas of development.

The 2018 paper, led by Tyler Watts of New York University, reports that treatment groups did, in fact, perform better in measures of executive function and academic achievement (demonstrated through self-reported GPAs) than their peers that did not receive the initial intervention. However, these effects were modest in size, and as Watts described, were more “suggestive than conclusive.”. As such, the results are promising, yet more research is needed. The data presented in this paper also suggest there may be more nuance and/or complexity in assessing the adolescent’s emotional regulatory capabilities than initially assumed. These follow-up measures of emotional regulation demonstrated that participants from the treatment group showed higher reactivity to sadness and anger, but an overall negative score for emotional regulation (though this difference was not statistically significant). Researchers are curious about the implications of such a result — does it demonstrate a greater sensitivity to negative emotions? Or, in the context of these students’ improved executive function and academic achievement, does it simply demonstrate the effects of changed cognitive ability? A final explanation for these findings might be that CSRP participants tend to experience high exposure to poverty, violence, and crime, and, as such, their emotional regulatory skills have developed in tandem with those factors. Regardless of the nuance in some measures, this report demonstrates the need to continue following the children that participated in CSRP to better understand how their trajectories might have been altered in the long-run.

CSRP is not done yet. A new round of data collection, coming in 2019, will once again check-in with CSRP participants as they navigate through late adolescence and into adulthood. In tandem with results from similar longitudinal studies, CSRP’s findings can help organizations such as Head Start, as well as government agencies, provide best-practices and help set all students up for long-term success.

For more information about CSRP and its findings, check out the full paper.

Chicago School Readiness Project begins new wave of data collection

The Chicago School Readiness Project (CSRP) has begun a new wave of data collection in early 2019. Building on prior research, this effort looks to assess the long-term benefits of the project’s preschool intervention in Head Start, which launched in 2003. This initial intervention focused on supporting students’ self regulation and emotional regulation in preparation for upcoming years of schooling.

CSRP’s new round of research will focus on these same students, asking about their future plans as they enter adulthood. Most of the students are now 16-19 years old, nearing the end of high school, and deciding what their next endeavors will be. These students have accomplished a lot since the early years of the study — ending up in a variety of schools, pursuing individual activities and passions, with some participants even moving to different states. The researchers are now interested in hearing about which unique paths students will be taking in the coming years. Will students pursue further degrees? Are they enrolling in 4-year universities, community colleges, or vocational schools? Will they go into the workforce? What kind of work are they interested in?

The information gathered this year will provide valuable insights into the long-term effects of school interventions on student successes. CSRP students are more than just participants in a research study, they are collaborators. The researchers value their voices and want their stories to be heard. The information these participants provide will be used to inform other educational interventions and the future direction of research, which will help future generations of students to come. This information is not only interesting from an academic standpoint but is increasingly valuable in informing revision of policy and education standards.

Additionally, CSRP investigators Amanda Roy and Christine Li-Grining will soon be launching a new project with the same cohort. This investigation will provide a new intervention for the participants, helping them face the transition from teen to adult. In doing so, the researchers hope to provide support for the individuals’ burgeoning education and career goals.

March is National Nutrition Month — how does nutrition affect development?

Springtime is often associated with rebirth and renewal — the blooming plants and bright colors reminding us that as winter comes to a close, new life cycles begin. Thus, it seems appropriate that March is National Nutrition Month, a campaign from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to build awareness around issues of nutrition and health. The campaign’s goal is to educate and empower the American public to choose fresh, balanced options whenever possible. Thanks to former first-lady Michelle Obama’s childhood health campaign and the recent popularization of living a ‘healthy lifestyle’ – particularly through social media (1, 2) – issues of health and nutrition are more regularly talked about in recent years. Despite these changes, over 90% of the American public don’t manage to eat the recommended amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, and obesity-related illnesses – like heart disease and diabetes – continue to be one of the larger causes of death across the country.

Poor nutrition is a huge issue for people across the globe, one that stems from a number of related, often systemic, issues, such as limited access to produce and fresh foods, undereducation about health and nutrition, and more broadly, poverty. Even though we often associate ‘malnutrition’ with populations in developing countries, a large number of children and adults across America suffer from food shortages every day. Researchers have shown that, along with a variety of other physical consequences, consistent deficiencies in nutrition have a significant impact on brain development and activity (3). There are two potential outcomes of poor nutrition – malnourishment and over-nourishment to the point of obesity – both of which have the potential to interfere with your brain’s well-being.

Malnutrition from not having enough food and/or enough nutritious food can have devastating impacts on neurological development. Research shows that deficiencies in micro and macronutrients during early childhood years (particularly protein-deficiencies) can lead to missed neurodevelopmental landmarks, which contribute to difficulty in learning, late school entry, and failure to perform at the same level as peers (4, 5). Other studies suggest that brains under starvation conditions will actively suppress certain functions to conserve energy. This process is called “down-regulation.” Our brains down-regulate certain functions as an energy-saving precaution so that necessary brain activities can continue for as long as possible, even when the body isn’t getting enough food. Studies of animal models suggest that memory is the primary function a brain will down-regulate during a period of starvation, in particular the formation of long-term memories (6). So, not only is malnutrition a risk-factor for developmental setbacks, but can also negatively impact our daily life and brain function!

On the other side of the issue, when overnutrition leads to obesity, there is also the potential for negative impacts on our brains. However, obesity-related risks tend to be more social and psychological, rather than physical. Researchers have shown that obesity in children and teens is associated with psychosocial stressors like stress, bullying, feelings of loneliness, isolation, or shame (7), and obese teens are more likely to engage in certain risky behaviors, like smoking cigarettes (8). Obesity is also associated with the development of mental health problems, like depression, in people of all ages (9). These findings are complicated, because psychosocial difficulties can also be influenced by a number of other factors, like genetic predisposition, living in poverty, living in unsafe neighborhoods, unstable home lives, high levels of stress, etc. (10). Further complicating the issue, some of those factors that influence the development of psychosocial difficulties can also be directly associated with obesity. The risks are all tangled together, making them hard to separate into individual causes and effects.

These are just a few of the potential risks that come from poor nutrition. Unfortunately, the reality is that many Americans just don’t have access to fresh food sources, either because of their location or socioeconomic status. Finding affordable produce can be challenging and expensive, and preparing that produce into home-cooked meals takes up a lot of time. Luckily, it’s not always as complicated as it may seem. Though we are bombarded daily with different opinions and facts about what foods may be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for us, the reality that nutritionists hope to translate is that a healthy diet is a balanced diet. It doesn’t need to be fancy and it doesn’t have to be boring or bland. Every person’s daily intake of food should come from a mix of food groups including vegetables, fruits, grains, and protein sources, like chicken, fish or beans. There are so many combinations, the options are endless! The real key is to make sure you aren’t eating too much of certain kinds of foods – specifically meat, dairy products, and grains. And try to stay away from foods high in processed sugar and/or saturated fats. To find out more about choosing healthy options and reading food labels, check out this article.

Of course, regular exercise helps to keep your heart, mind, and body in good shape, as well! This can also be difficult to fit into a busy schedule, but even just taking a 15 minute walk every day, getting up to stretch and walk around every hour, or so, or parking at the far end of the supermarket parking lot to increase your daily steps can make a huge difference over time (11).

The National Nutrition Month website has lots of helpful information sheets with about how to build easy nutritious meals and snacks for yourself and your family. In addition, there are a ton of helpful tools available online to help guide your way to a healthier lifestyle! If you are looking for more tips and tricks, check out the government’s healthy-eating guidelines, the Department of Health & Human Services nutrition resources, and the Choose My Plate toolkit.
If you’re interested in learning more about demographics and food accessibility in your town, check out the Healthy Food Access Portal. You can also check out the Farm Aid page for resources to help navigate food labels and locate fresh produce near you!