What thoughts and emotions arise when you think about “screen time”? We at Sparkle Stories know firsthand how complicated this topic feels. Our emotions can vary widely in each moment, from guilt over “too much screen time” to relief over the prospect of giving kids (and yourself) a short break from connection. We know that too much screen time can make kids cranky and unmanageable, but we also know the joy that can be found in a family movie night. There’s a lot going on in those two words!
If you start digging into the research, you’ll find an almost endless well of opinions on screen time. Some insist that any screen time at all should be avoided. On the opposite end of the spectrum, others claim negative outcomes from stringent screen time limitations. Some even suggest that eliminating screen time will put kids at a disadvantage compared to their peers, who will be digital natives. So what’s the truth? How does screen time impact kids’ health, wellbeing, and development? Let’s take a look at some of the research and what scientists are learning. It is our experience that there is a balance to be found somewhere. Screens can offer opportunities for education and entertainment, but too much screen time can have a negative impact on our kids. We know it’s always good to check gut feelings against scientific research, so join us as we dig into these studies!
Studies on Screen Time and Kids
Across the board, screen time habits begin earlier than many may realize. The average daily time spent on screens increases from just under one hour at age 12 months to an hour and a half at 3 years. Children in home-based childcare or those born to first-time mothers were most likely to have the highest exposure to screens. This information comes from researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University at Albany, and the New York University Langone Medical Center.
With such prevalence, it's even more important to understand the implications of screen time. There are plenty of articles that make black-and-white claims about the impacts of screen time. But the reality is that there has been a lack of strong longitudinal studies so far. Nonetheless, some of the limited research we do have has helped shape the dominant narrative, as well as commonplace policies. One longitudinal study from the University of Calgary, for instance, has helped shape recommendations for limiting screen time for infants and young children. While this is something that deserves more continued research, we do have some results and insights currently available to help inform our thinking and our parenting.
How Screen Time Affects the Brain
Some of the best available data comes from the Upstate KIDS screening program. This ongoing study includes thousands of children. It has provided valuable information regarding the use of screen time among various age groups. Here’s what they have found: Children exposed to two hours of screen time per day scored lower on thinking and language tests than kids who spent less time on screens. The most concerning data came with participants reporting higher levels of screen use. In these children, there were impacts to children’s actual brain structures. Specifically, researchers discovered thinning of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that supports cognitive function.
There are also movements from within Silicon Valley itself – the central hub of tech and development helping to drive the prevalence of screen use – to limit the use of screens at home. In fact, many Silicon Valley parents are eliminating screen time completely for their own children. Although the social, practical, and economic implications of a choice like this could foster more conversation, it’s at least important for us to note the concern these tech-wise parents have around screens.
How Screen Time Affects Sleep
Parents know that a good night’s sleep is essential to building a routine that supports childhood development. This is particularly true during early childhood — and it can be particularly challenging to achieve under even the best circumstances (colicky baby, anyone?) That said, if you’re having trouble helping your little ones get the rest they need, you might benefit from taking a look at screen time patterns. Parents may notice that rest doesn’t come as easily for little ones after exposure to screens. This can create a barrier to building healthy habits of daily rhythm.
Sleep is important, but kids generally don’t get enough of it. According to one study, the amount of sleep that children and adolescents get each night has been on the decline for the past century. Although this study doesn’t reference screen time, we can’t help but wonder how much screen time contributes to this trend of decreasing sleep. Using screens before bed can also make it more difficult for children to fall asleep and negatively affect how well they do sleep. Screens are stimulating and activating to kids’ minds. This can be counteractive during a time when they need to be winding down. In addition, there is evidence that the blue light from screens, TV, and devices may keep the body from producing melatonin and signaling that time for sleep is approaching. For these reasons, some parents prefer to set limits on screen time in the evening or night time — often for their children as well as for themselves.
How Screen Time Affects Mental Health
What have we learned when it comes to screen time and children’s mental health? As you might guess, the research shows that screen time comes with some risks. In one population-based study from 2018, higher screen time exposure was linked to lower psychological well-being. This impact was even more prominent the higher the daily screen time use. Negative results increased progressively as the average time increased. The same study showed that participants with higher screen time exposure were also more likely to suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
In addition to lower psychological well-being, screen time is also associated with lower self esteem. As adults, we intuitively know that prolonged exposure to perfectly curated social media feeds can cause a tendency to compare ourselves. This often contributes to feelings of inadequacy. Many of us have experienced these effects ourselves. We may have even made some changes to our own habits as a result. The same negative impacts apply for our children. The difference is that they are at an even more delicate stage of lifespan development, as their brains and bodies undergo the growth and changes that occur during childhood and adolescence. And last but not least, more screen time also means more potential exposure to cyber bullying. And unlike bullying that may occur at school or away from the home, kids have a much harder time getting away from bullying that may take place online.
How Screen Time Affects Social Skills
There are several ways in which screen time can impact the development of social skills. For one, when screen time increases, face-to-face interaction naturally becomes more limited. This in and of itself poses challenges, since part of social development depends on learning to recognize emotions through non-verbal cues and facial expressions. And these are important touchpoints, that actually play a big role in helping children develop empathy.
Long Term Impacts
The good news is that there is science to help guide our decisions, habits, and routines around screen time. We can use some evidence to help us decide how much we include or don’t include in our regular daily routines. However, there is still plenty that we do not know. In fact, many of the topics that we’ve covered in this article had little to no evidence to help shape our thinking as little as a decade ago. We’ve already come very far in our understanding of how screen time impacts development.
One area of study that we know less about is the long term impact of screen time exposure in early childhood and adolescence. We generally understand that higher screen time is associated with some harmful effects. Yet there are still plenty of gaps in our knowledge and in the available research. Fortunately, one study is currently underway that can help fill some of those gaps. CU Boulder researchers are currently working on a new seven-year project. This study will investigate the impacts of screen time on childhood and adolescent brain development even more thoroughly.
As our understanding continues to expand, we will have better and better tools to help guide our choices and habits. In the meantime, our best advice is for parents to continue to lean into their own experience and intuition when it comes to creating healthy and stable routines for our children. A review of the best available research can definitely help inform our thinking and shape our specific choices. But at the end of the day, showing up as a parent in a way that conveys presence and responsiveness is still the cornerstone of what’s important.