It is a constant battle these days in most families. Children want to use their devices all the time. They want to watch lots and lots of television. They want to take their phones to bed with them. The first thing they do when they get home from school is surf YouTube or start gaming. It can stress even the most loving family. But how much should parents worry, if at all?
Some recently published research is shedding light on the problem and the solutions. First, here’s the really bad news. Sheri Madigan and her colleagues at the University of Calgary just published a serious look at children’s developmental outcomes at age 5 and found that children with more screen time had much worse developmental outcomes.
Developmental outcomes mean a child’s ability to meet physical and intellectual milestones in areas like communication, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and social interactions.
Madigan and her team show convincingly with a sample of over 2000 children that youngsters who watch more television or are on screens of any kind at 24 months show developmental delays at 36 months, and that children who spend more time on screens at 36 months show significant delays at 60 months, even when controlling for other things like family income and gender.
Worse, children who use more screens are more delayed. In the sample, the average amount of time children were on screens at age two was 2.4 hours a day, at age three, 3.6 hours a day, and at age five it was 1.6 hours (it is interesting that children decrease their hours of screen time after age three). Those numbers don’t surprise me at all, given how common it is to see young children watching television.
A very different type of study has come to similar conclusions but paints a less troubling picture for children once they reach age 6. Neza Stiglic and Russell Viner from the University College of London’s Institute of Child Health looked at every review of the evidence they could find regarding screen time and children’s health and draw some surprising conclusions.
First, does more screen time mean more obesity among our children?
The answer is yes, with moderately strong evidence that the more children watch television, the more likely they are to be overweight and sedentary, consuming far too many calories and avoiding physical activity. That’s bad news if your child likes to watch endless reality shows or sports.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the story is more complicated. There is, it seems, insufficient evidence that overall screen time harms kids. In fact, non-television screen time may not have much of an effect on children’s physical size at all. Even more confusing for parents, there is practically no consensus on how much television is too much once children are over the age of 5.
For those 5 and under, one hour a day is likely quite enough, but for school aged children, the best parenting advice seems to be to negotiate a reasonable limit and encourage other kinds of activities (even screen time other than television).
Why this is so is unclear from the research, but any parent who has watched a teen in front of the television knows that children engage differently depending on what screen they’re watching. Online gaming, social media, or using the internet to do homework all demand much more of viewers.
Second, what about depression, suicide, and overall quality of life?
This is where the amount of time online (not just television watching) may begin to have a more negative effect on our children’s health. Several analyses of the research report that there is at least a weak association between two hours or more of screen time each day and increased levels of depression among school-aged children.