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Is Screen Time Bad for Kids?

When it comes to keeping kids busy, there's nothing like the allure of a tablet or phone. But is screen time harmful to children? How much is too much? 

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
Episode #332
screen time for young children

Summer vacation is upon us. For parents, that can mean looking for ways to entertain the kids until school starts again. After you've hit all the parks, invested in summer camp, and done all the messy crafts you can do, it's tempting to turn to the controversial option of giving your kids access to games, videos, and other things to keep them busy. Some parents don't mind digital entertainment for their children, but others limit or outright ban it. Is screen time bad for kids? Here's what science has to say.

Does screen time distract from family time?

Drawing a direct link between screen time and any sort of emotional or cognitive development in children is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. There are many factors at work in our children’s development, whether they're conscious choices we make as parents or consequences of our environment. Singling out and identifying a direct cause for any particular type of behavior is a challenge.

Singling out and identifying a direct cause for any particular type of behavior is a challenge.

Proponents of minimizing screen time often promote the importance of putting away screens specifically at meal time so that families can spend that time together. The evidence is mixed, however, on whether or not family meals have a measurable impact on academic success or child behavior. Studies from two decades ago began to tout the positive effects of family meals and claimed that adolescents, in particular, fare better when families spend time engaging with each other over breakfast and dinner. But further investigation has found some of these initial studies to be limited (in their use of a control sample, for example) and even biased in some cases due to limited samples. 

Authors of a study of 21,400 children between the ages of 5 and 15 used that large sample size to try to alleviate some of these biases. They were not able to draw a direct link between families who dined together and the children’s academic success or productivity. Instead, they found the bigger correlations related to race or ethnicity, single parent household status, socioeconomic status, and other aspects of family routine. 

Does screen time lead to trouble focusing? 

Studies have found correlations between increased screen time (i.e. more than two hours per day) and inattention problems like ADHD in preschoolers. Of course, correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation. In other words, just because these two trends exist together doesn’t mean that one caused the other. For example, it's not always clear whether children given more screen time tend to develop problems focusing or if children who already have innate problems focusing are given more screen time to help accommodate their needs for entertainment. 

It's not always clear whether children given more screen time tend to develop problems focusing or if children who already have innate problems focusing are given more screen time to help accommodate their needs for entertainment.

Other studies have attempted to test for associations, beyond simple correlations, by tracking children’s behavior over time. One study of 2441 mothers and their children found that more screen time between the ages of 2 and 3 years of age was associated with poor performance on tests for developmental milestones at ages 3 to 5. However, they didn't find a link between poor developmental performance scores in the earlier age group that led to increased screen time in the later age group. 

The debate over screen time is far from over, especially as we invent new ways to keep us on our phones and tablets every day. The National Institute of Health recently completed a $300 million study into how screen time affects children’s brain development. Their initial results, which focus on 4500 participants, already show that kids who spend more than two hours per day with any kind of screen scored lower on language and thinking tests. 

So, how much screen time should I allow?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has developed a detailed list of suggestions for children and media use. For example, they recommend setting healthy limits, just as you would for any other form of entertainment. Above all, they recommend that parents and caregivers avoid letting screen time replace personal interactions, time with family, time playing outdoors, exercise, and sleep.

Screen time gets a bad rap, but of course, not all media is created equal. The AAP stresses the importance of knowing what your child is watching. Time spent watching educational videos as research for a school project isn't the same as catching up with the latest cartoons on Netflix.

Screen time gets a bad rap, but of course, not all media is created equal. The AAP stresses the importance of knowing what your child is watching.

Ultimately, the AAP recommends that children younger than 18 months get no screen time other than video chatting. Between 2 and 5 years, they suggest that parents who want to introduce screen time do so with no more than one hour a day of only “high quality programming.” They encourage parents to watch with their children to help them process what they're watching. If your child is older than five, the AAP provides a tool for developing a media use plan that best suits your family’s specific needs. 

When it comes to screen time, the question is not always “is this bad for my child?” but rather “is this interfering with other things that I know are important for my child’s development?” We know very small children learn to communicate by watching and copying others, and that sleep and at least one hour of physical activity per day are crucial for cognitive development. So, of course, it makes sense not to allow screen time to get in the way of those activities. But if you need to entertain your two-year-old on a long car ride? Don’t feel guilty about letting her binge watch a few episodes of educational programming on PBS. 

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Image courtesy of shutterstock

 
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