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

2. Do screens drive us apart or bring us together?

Yes, screens can bring us together.

Think of a family watching and discussing a classic movie, playing Pokemon GO, or working up a sweat to Just Dance. The research term for this is joint media engagement. Furthermore, app designers and TV producers take seriously the idea of user interactivity. Dora the Explorer asked questions of her audience, Netflix has created several choose-your-own adventure kid shows. The people who produce Sesame Street even created a design guide to encourage joint media engagement.

But here’s the flip side.

Rather than getting out the timer and focusing exclusively on quantity, focus on quality.

A 2016 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology challenged whether joint media engagement was as good as plain old joint engagement. The researchers asked moms and 7-to-9-year old kids to read a story together. They created four groups based on whether Mom or child read and whether they read on paper or on a tablet.

Among others things, the researchers evaluated something called interaction warmth, which is basically the technical term for having a nice time together. Interestingly, warmth was lower for screen than for paper, particularly when the kids read on screen, and it worsened the longer Mom and kid read together.

One possible reason, the researchers said, was that both moms and kids tended to hold a book where both of them could see, but hold a tablet as if they were using it on their own, forcing the other to “shoulder surf” and crane their necks to get a better view.

The conclusion?

You can do anything together, from crafting to cooking to playing Minecraft to reading. And this is what counts. It’s not that screentime is always bad and digging worms is always good. It’s not the activity—it’s that you’re together. But we’re not really together if we’re alone on our devices, even if we’re cuddled next to each other on the couch.

3. Does screen time mess with our social abilities?

One side says it totally messes us up.

An ingeniously simple study sent fifty 11-to-13-year-olds to an outdoor camp with no screens for five days. When they came back, they were compared to fifty of their media-consuming peers. Turns out five days of using their thumbs to make friendship bracelets instead of texts resulted in the campers being significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had access to phones, TV, and computers. The conclusion? Without screens, kids had to communicate face-to-face, which accordingly sharpened their skills not only in s’mores roasting and scary storytelling, but in reading human emotion.

But the other side says stop freaking out.

Another study in the prestigious journal Psychological Science examined over 120,000 British teenagers and found there may be a “digital sweet spot” where screen time still affords the benefits of education apps or social media connections but isn’t harmful. Indeed, teens’ overall well-being—defined as happiness, psychological health, social functioning, and life satisfaction—improved as screen time increased, but only to a point. After that point, more screen time began to take a toll.

What were the magic numbers? For smartphone use, the tipping point was 1 hour and 57 minutes. For video games, 1 hour and 40 minutes. Watching videos and web surfing were higher, respectively clocking in at 3 hours and 41 minutes and 4 hours and 17 minutes.

A good media diet includes moderation and some healthy goodies, but can handle some junk food, and, notably, benefits from the occasional fast.

But before you decide to take away your teen’s iPhone after two hours, know that the association between screen time and well-being was relatively weak—weaker than eating breakfast or getting a good night’s sleep.

The conclusion?

Rather than getting out the timer and focusing exclusively on quantity, focus on quality. Are your kids sedentary and isolated? Or are they doing activities and talking alongside friends? Life should definitely include screen-free time with friendship bracelets and campfire stories, but it would be a shame not to keep in touch with those newfound camp friends on Facebook after summer’s end.

So, Are Screens Bad for Your Kids?

To sum it all up, think about your kids’ digital intake like you think about their food intake. A good media diet includes moderation and some healthy goodies, but can handle some junk food, and, notably, benefits from the occasional fast.

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Medical Disclaimer
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 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. 

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