Screen Time for Kids: 3 Questions You Should Be Asking

The headlines scream: Screens are like crack! Screens turn your kid’s brain to mush! But are tablets, smartphones, and laptops—not to mention TV—really so bad? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen delves into the research to screen (ha-ha) out truth from fiction.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #169


screen time for kids - is it healthy?

Want a surefire conversation starter with any group of parents? No, it’s not bullying, college applications, or even the defective wiring of toddlers. If you want parents to talk, bring up the idea of kids and screen time.

Last year, Time magazine ran an article about how tech in the classroom leads to worse educational outcomes and noted that over two hundred studies have linked increased screen time to ADHD, depression, anxiety, increased aggression, even psychosis.

So what gives? Are screens really that bad for our kids? If so, we’ve got a problem on our hands even bigger than when your kid tries to eat chips and hear Epic Rap Battles of History at the same time.

I don’t have to tell you that screens are everywhere. A 2013 report out of the London School of Economics found that 25% of three- to four-year-olds in the U.S. have used the internet. In the Netherlands, it was 78%. And in the past few years, it’s probably safe to assume the percentage has grown. Fast forward to adolescence: a Pew study found that 97% of all teens play video games and one in two play video games on any given day.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released screen time recommendations in 2016 to inform families on device usage.

Screen Time Recommendations by Age

  • 18 Months and Younger: Avoid screen media other than video-chatting.
  • 18 to 24 Months: Parents can slowly introduce high-quality digital programming to their toddler.
  • Ages 2 to 5: Limit screen use to one hour per day.
  • Ages 6 and Older: Place "consistent limits" on time spent using various types of digital media.

Parents should be asking the following three questions regarding what effect screen time has on our kids, their brains, and their lives. As we walk through each question, I'll offer evidence on both sides of the scientific debate and conclude with my own thoughts.

  1. Are screens educational?
  2. Do screens drive us apart or bring us together?
  3. Does screen time mess with our social abilities?

Let's begin.

1. Are screens educational?

Yes, screens can be educational. 

App stores are well-stocked with apps and games that are fun, well-designed, and effective. A number of studies show that quality educational apps help kids learn more and faster.

There’s also the argument that "interactive" equals "engaging," which in turn increases comprehension and retention. Indeed, my own kids have used a number of educational apps and don’t even realize they’re learning. Who among us wouldn’t have wished for an engaging algebra app?

But here’s the flip side.

Screens aren’t a replacement for a good, in-person teacher. A classic study from 2003 showed just this. The study participants? Babies! Specifically, nine-month-old babies who heard only English spoken at home.

The researchers were curious about the phenomenon of sitting one’s baby in front of Chinese- or Spanish-language television, hoping they’d pick up some new vocabulary. Did it work? The researchers investigated.

To do this, babies either got to play in playgroups led in Mandarin by a teacher who was a native Mandarin speaker, or in English by a native English speaker. They read stories and played with toys. But here’s the twist. The Mandarin playgroups were also video recorded. And later, a third group of babies watched the Mandarin playgroups, but on a screen. Exact same content, exact same teacher.

After twelve playgroups, the researchers tested all the babies and found that those who had heard the live Mandarin teacher responded to Mandarin syllables, while the babies in the English playgroups, predictably, didn’t notice Mandarin syllables at all.

But what about the Mandarin-on-a-screen group? Turns out they didn’t learn a thing. Their phonics discrimination was the same as the English-only group.  So even though they had been exposed to the same material by the same teachers as the live group, something about viewing it on a screen stopped them from recognizing Mandarin.

Therefore, at least when it comes to language learning, live interaction is the way to go.

The conclusion?

Nothing is inherently wrong with reading or algebra apps or videos, and a lot of them do improve learning outcomes, both anecdotally and in studies. However, technology should be the icing on the cake.

Here’s what I mean: computer scientists have something they call the Law of Amplification, which means technology is a tool that amplifies—not replaces—human power. So good teaching, parental involvement, and a rich educational environment all come first and technology can be the cherry on top. In short, screens can magnify good education, but they can’t make up for bad education


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.