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New Rules for Screen Time

I’ve written a number of posts about screen time before, but this is a topic that needs reviewing. Our children are the first generation to be raised in a world where babies are practically born with a device in their hands. For a while now, we haven’t had the data to determine how good or bad that is. But it’s changing. New studies are being conducted and the jury may not be out for much longer.

I still remember the transition in our house when I got my first iPhone. G1 was 4 and G2 had just started walking. If we had labels for this transition, I would say that G1 was born just before the iPad generation, while G2 entered straight into it. We were the first wave of parents that had to face this without a clue.

Having been raised around computers for much of my life, I have generally felt pretty comfortable with my kids using devices. Although I did not have quite the level of exposure to computers that our children are facing today. There have been times when the number of their contact hours with screens has made me uncomfortable and I have had to step in to limit them.

While many parents were still fumbling in the dark, the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) stepped up. They issued the recommended guidelines that there should be no screen time for children under 2 years. At that time, there wasn’t any hard evidence to back this, but it seemed like practical advice. We had no studies on the effects of screen time on young brains because there had been no precedent. And in science, you need at least 10 years to determine the longer-term effects.

Current Screen Time Guidelines

As the years have gone by, the AAP has continued to update their guidelines accordingly. These are the latest recommendations regarding screen usage (2016):

  • For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. 
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Now that my kids are in the ages “6 and older” category, I am inclined to agree with their recommendations. More about that below…

So what is the general research saying about screen time and children? Before we dive into it, there are a number of factors to consider, such as the age of the children and the type of media consumed. While much of it is still in shades of gray, what is obvious is that age matters.

Screen Time and Young Children

screen time
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

When we talk about young children from the perspective of screen usage, we’re referring to the children below 6 years. The following studies have all reported negative effects associated with higher levels of screen time in preschoolers.

“Screen-based media associated with structural differences in brains of young children.”

What is ScreenQ?

The ScreenQ is a novel measure of screen-based media use in children intended for pediatric clinical use, incorporating evidence-based factors known to influence these effects, including access to screens, frequency and context of use (e.g., meals), content (e.g., violent versus educational) and co-viewing with grownup caregivers.

Science Daily

In this study, researchers took the ScreenQ of 47 children aged between 3 to 5 years, gave them cognitive tests, then took brain scans. They found that kids with higher ScreenQs had lower expressive language, processing speed, and emergent literacy skills. They also had lower white matter integrity in the areas of the brain involving executive functioning and literary skills.

“Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test”

In this study, researchers observed that children exposed to higher levels of screen time at 2 to 3 years old achieved sub-optimal milestone development at 3 to 5 years of age.

Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers

Yet another study on screen-time and preschool children reported that preschoolers who spent more than 2 hours a day on screens were more likely to have problems with inattention.

This is not an extensive review of the literature, but it does point to a consistent recommendation. When it comes to children below 6, we really need to be more vigilant about their screen time. Focus on quality, shared screen time (with an adult), and limit the amount of time spent on devices.

Screen Time and Older Kids

screen time
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

It gets a little more complicated with the older kids because they do a lot of things on screens. Some activities are just a different version of the things we used to do. For instance:

  • They could be on Facetime with a friend, much the same way we would have done with our friends on the house telephone line.
  • They could be doing their homework, researching information for a school report, much the same way we would have done at the public library looking through textbooks and journals.
  • The kids could be doing a group project through google classrooms, like what we used to do at a friend’s house.
  • Instead of being on the Television, they might be watching a program on Youtube, Khan Academy, TEDTalks, or Amazon Prime. These are just a few of the examples.
  • They could be reading a digital book on Kindle or another e-reader, or using a digital library app, or listening to an audiobook. This one generates quite a lot of arguments in our house – is this considered using a screen or reading?
  • They could be making a birthday card using a drawing app.
  • And yes, they could be playing games.

This is not an exhaustive list of things they could be doing on a screen but it does illustrate why specific time limitations for screen time can become quite challenging. Could you imagine trying to get all that done in 1 hour? Or even 2?

Screen Time and Mental Health

With the research, the results are a little murkier. Take the discussion on social media use and mental health as an example.

Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time

In this study, researchers concluded that the increase in adolescent mental health issues was likely to be related to the concomitant rise of screen time.

  • Adolescents who spent more time on-screen activities were significantly more likely to have high depressive symptoms or have at least one suicide-related outcome, and those who spent more time on non-screen activities were less likely.
  • The correlations between mental health and new media screen activities were higher among girls than among boys.
  • The results show a clear pattern linking screen activities with higher levels of depressive symptoms/suicide-related outcomes and non-screen activities with lower levels.
  • Risks became elevated after 2 hours or more a day of electronic device use.
  • Adolescents using devices 5 or more hours a day (vs. 1 hour) were 66% more likely to have at least one suicide-related outcome.

Does time spent using social media impact mental health?

In this study, researchers conducted an 8-year longitudinal study examining the association between time spent using social media and depression and anxiety at the intra-individual level. They concluded that:

  • Time spent using social media was not related to individual changes in depression or anxiety over 8 years.
  • This lack of a relationship was found even in the transition between adolescence and emerging adulthood.
  • Results were not stronger for girls or boys.

Landmark Study on Screen Time and Kids

There is an ongoing 10-year study that hopes to tell us what screen time is doing to our children’s brains. With nearly 12000 children participating, the study will look at how kids are using their screen time. Whether they play multiplayer video games, solo games, or social networking, for example. Additionally, instead of relying on parent or child reported usage (which often doesn’t tally against each other), researchers intend to automatically log screen time on smartphones and other devices. The kids will undergo MRI scans every two years with yearly questionnaires and interviews to determine how the usage of devices impacts their success in school and mental health.

The study began in 2016 so we’re still a way off from getting the full results of the study. What they have observed so far is a premature thinning of the cortex – something that usually doesn’t happen so early. Whether or not we should be concerned by this, they cannot say.

We don’t know if it’s being caused by the screen time. We don’t know yet if it’s a bad thing. It won’t be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we’re seeing in this single snapshot.

Dr. Gaya Dowling, the National Institutes of Health

So what do we know? Well, so far, the study indicates that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests. The question that begs to ask is what sort of screen time are we talking about?

Research-Backed Benefits of Active Screen Time

kelly-sikkema-miBGrAA8b2o-unsplash (1)
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

An article on EdSurge makes a differentiation between active and passive screen time. The problems we observe with screen time mostly relate to passive screen time usage. When kids use their screen time actively, it can become a beneficial activity.

The Difference between Active and Passive Screen Time

Passive Screen Time – defined as the passive consumption of digital content with no thought, creativity or interaction required to progress. It includes common activities like scrolling through social media, watching TV or videos on YouTube, or even playing games that don’t require thinking.

Active Screen Time – involves cognitive thought and/or physical engagement. It includes playing video games or completing homework on a computer.

Active Screen Time divides into two categories – physical and cognitive. Physical screen time includes games that encourage kids to move. These include PokemonGo, Nintendo Switch games such as Ring Fit Adventure or Just Dance, Nintendo Wii, or the Xbox Kinect. Physical screen time activities are found to be similar in intensity to moderate physical activities, such as walking, skipping, and jogging.

Cognitive screen time includes:

  • learning a new skill through coding games or websites
  • creating music
  • writing and publishing stories or poetry
  • playing games that require them to solve problems, think critically and come up with solutions

The Bottom Line

It would seem that for older kids, screen time becomes a different discussion. Rather than obsessing over the amount of time spent on screen time, we should focus on the quality of screen time. Of course, that doesn’t mean adopting a “no holds barred” approach. Be aware of the signs of screen media addiction:

  • It’s hard for my child to stop using screen media.
  • Screen media is the only thing that seems to motivate my child.
  • Screen media is all my child seems to think about.
  • My child’s screen media use interferes with family activities.
  • My child’s screen media use causes problems for the family.
  • The amount of time my child wants to use screen media keeps increasing.
  • My child becomes frustrated when he/she cannot use screen media.
  • My child sneaks using screen media.
  • When my child has a bad day, screen media is the only thing that helps him/her feel better.

As David Anderson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and senior director of National Programs and Outreach at the Child Mind Institute says:

If your teenager is generally actively participating, getting homework done, having face-to-face interaction with family members and friends, and has extracurricular and physical activity … parents can relax a little.

ABC News


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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