Screens are everywhere, especially with the mobilization of tech. Look up from the one you’re perusing now and you’ll see someone else staring at theirs. The migration to screen culture has all happened relatively recently, and so it’s a prime candidate for fear and resentment.
People may love their screens but they also typically hate and fear them due to the effect they seem to have on social interaction, and on understanding. The assumption is that staring at a screen for hours has negative effects, especially on children.
Is this true? The short answer is: yes, but it doesn’t mean that screen time isn’t a good thing in moderation. Parents have a responsibility to help govern and guide.
Let’s get the scary part out of the way first. Too much screen time can hinder childrens’ social abilities. A 2014 research study from UCLA suggested that sixth graders who went five days without checking a screen became a lot better at reading human emotions, compared to another group who continued using their devices.
The test groups typically spent about 4.5 hours a day looking at screens of some kind, whether on a device or a TV. One group of children was taken to a camp where screens were banned, while the other group carried on as normal.
Each group was shown 48 photos representing faces with various emotions and asked to identify what the people were feeling. The non-screen group averaged 9.4 errors at the end of their screen diet, compared to 14 at the beginning. In other words, they got significantly better. The screen group experienced a far smaller change.
Too much screen time can also give children emotional problems. 2010 research from the UK’s University of Bristol studied over 1,000 children aged 10-11, measuring their screen time and also recording their levels of physical activity. The result: over two hours of screen time each day begins to cause psychological difficulties.
Simply increasing physical activity to compensate won’t cut it, said Bristol University researchers at the time. Kids gazing at screens for too long were still prone to problems.
Not all screen time is equal
This doesn’t mean that screen time in moderation can’t be useful. Much depends on what kind of time it is. Vegetating in front of the TV and consuming mindless advertising may be bad for kids. On the other hand, some studies contend that playing video games can be a good thing.
The University of Rochester found in 2010 that playing video games often resulted in faster decision making (although that study group was aged 18-25).
Oxford University studied almost 5000 children and found that playing video games were better adjusted than those that didn’t – as long as they played for three hours a day or less. They displayed the highest levels of sociability and had fewer emotional problems.
More recently, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and Paris Descartes University studied 6-11 year olds and found a strong link between video game play and higher than average intellectual function and school competence.
“We caution against over interpretation, however, as setting limits on screen usage remains an important component of parental responsibility as an overall strategy for student success,” said Katherine M. Keyes, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Columbia, according to reports.
Even researchers like Keyes who find positive links with video gaming still stand by limits on screen time. Notably, only 20% of the kids in the Mailman study played for more than five hours a week, presumably because these kids had sensible parents who monitored their activity and mixed it up with other pursuits.
Similarly, the Oxford study found that pushing gaming time higher began to create psychological problems for kids.
What isn’t clear from any of these studies is exactly what the material is, and how it is consumed. Are kids playing inappropriate or overly violent games? Are they playing them collaboratively with friends, siblings or parents?
How much of the screen time is educational? Some, but it’s distributed unevenly. A survey of 1500 parents of children aged 2-10 by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that nearly half (44%) of their screen media is considered educational by their parents (that’s 56 minutes out of an average 2:07 hours spent on screen time each day).
Most of this educational use happens among 2-4 year-olds, though. Things get far less balanced as as kids get older. They spend more time in front of screens and far less time learning from them. We can assume that many tweens and teens get even less balance.
Moreover, when education is delivered by screen, it’s mostly from the TV. Kids get only five minutes or less educational activity per day from their mobile device, computer or video games console.
The upshot is that some material delivered via screens is far more beneficial to children than others. You can guide your kids to use screen time constructively, but even then, it should be capped.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a cap of two hours each day for screen time, and a ban on screen-based media altogether for kids under two years old. Those early years are a primary time for developing language skills. Time spent staring at or swiping a screen takes away from the talking and parental reading that’s especially important at that age.
It also means that parents should take a more active role in participating with their children, turning some of that screen time into productive learning time. Moderation and mentorship are key.