Screen Time for Kids: 3 Questions You Should Be Asking

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

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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