When it comes to all those problem behaviors we worry about with pre-schoolers, like hyperactivity, anxiety and poor social skills, there is evidence of a weak relationship between more screen time and increased risks for emotional and behavioral problems.
But the risk can be pretty low if screen time is controlled. For older youth, however, parents can definitely ease up on their worry. I was surprised to learn that more screen time doesn’t necessarily put school-aged children at risk for depression, eating disorders or suicide (unless of course that time online exposes children to endless online bullying).
Third, what about academic performance and the amount of sleep children get?
Here too, the evidence is remarkably weak (I’d have expected stronger results based on the stories I’ve heard from parents and educators). It seems that once again, there is only weak evidence that more than two hours of any kind of screen time a day reduces children’s academic performance or causes them to sleep less.
The takeaway message here seems to be to exercise caution as parents but not to panic if a child is online a lot. In fact, I think parents can breathe a small sigh of relief that for children over the age of 6 the risks from screen time aren’t that high. As long as your child is not watching endless television and is using their screen time to be actively engaged in some way (but not bullied) your child is likely going to make it through their childhoods with minimal difficulties.
Of course, statistics drawn from very large samples always suppress evidence of change. So in fact, even if the evidence for harm to children from screen time is overall weak, that still means that for some children the effects will be felt much worse than for others. A quick survey of all the results from studies like these suggests that commonsense is still needed.
What This Means for Parenting
For younger children, it is best not to pacify them with an iPad or smartphone. And especially not with a television. Turn off the screens altogether and encourage them to play in hands-on ways. They will benefit from the activity, social interactions, and the kinetic use of their bodies. They will also be less habituated to screens when they finally turn 6 and start negotiating for more access to online content and games.
With older children, help them to learn self-regulation. At a minimum keep control of how much television they watch. While there is no magic number, less is better. If they have to be online, encourage them to be online with others, or in activities that engage them. There is still a low risk of harm, but the harm may be less than we would expect.
Finally, remember that this is a field of science that is advancing quickly, desperately trying to keep up with changing technology and young people’s patterns of use. More studies are definitely going to be needed.
References: Madigan, S., Browne, D., Racine, N., Mori, C., & Tough, S. (2018). Association between screen time and children’s performance on a developmental screening test. JAMA Pediatrics. Doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056 Stiglic, N. & Viner, R. M. (2018). Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: A systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open, 9. Doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023191
Written by: Michael Ungar, Ph.D
Originally appeared on: Psychology Today
Republished with permission