The evidence is piling up, excessive amounts of time spent on screens is harmful to children’s health. From cognitive development issues, to cyberbullying and exposure to violence in video games, to hours staring at TVs, tablets and phones displacing other, more positive activities like sleep, socialising and exercise, there is no shortage of screen time-related concerns.
And while many of these are evidence based and to be taken seriously, from a research perspective, it’s extremely difficult to find exact causal links between screen time and childhood outcomes because there is an almost infinite set of external variables.
The idea that all “screen time” is the same thing is increasingly outdated. All screens were not created equally. There is potential for screen time to be a useful social and educational tool especially for older children and adolescents.
At present, guidance suggests limiting screen interaction with children under two to the occasional video call with family members, and keeping screen use to <1 hr per day for kids age 3-5. Experts advise that parents ensure children are watching high quality content, that parents seek out interactive content that requires active engagement, and encourage parents to sit down and watch too, as the extra social interaction helps children learn.
But as children age, both the research and advice are less clear cut. Some recent studies even suggest a moderate amount of screen time may be more beneficial than none at all for kids as they get older (a term some researchers have labelled the Goldilocks hypothesis). For example, a 2017 study of 120,000 adolescent participants, authors Przybylski and Weinstein found that moderate amounts of screen time was linked to higher mental well being when compared to low or high levels of screen time.
Similarly, a new study from UBC and the University of Calgary looked for connections between 700 children aged 8-16 and their self-reported screen time in the 7-10 days following a concussive accident and symptoms reported by them and their caregivers in the six months that followed. Those whose symptoms cleared up the fastest engaged in a moderate amount of screen time (compared with those who had none at all or a large amount). Dr Molly Cairncross, who conducted the research, believes that this is because kids use devices to connect with their peers, and that the complete removal of those screens could “lead to feelings of disconnection, loneliness and not having social support.”
To get a more nuanced insight into the effects that screens are having, some scholars have split screen time into 5 categories: Educational, Interactive, Passive, Social, and Other. To understand how we as researchers, media professionals, and parents can optimise the positive aspects of screen time and minimise the harmful, we’ll take a deep dive into each of these 5 categories in depth in next week’s blog!