Here’s what really matters when it comes to kids and screens… and it isn’t time

When it comes to screen time among children, it may be less important to focus on how long kids use devices and concentrate on how they use devices. 

Researchers in Australia analyzed more than 2,000 studies involving more than 2million children to determine the pros and cons of screen time in kids.

They found that when it comes to screens, it was more important to consider the type of content that was being viewed rather than how long content was being viewed. 

Overall, higher screen time was linked to worse learning outcomes, but a more ‘complex’ picture emerged when the type of screen time was considered, researchers said.

Children who watched television with a parent had improved literacy compared to those who were watching screens alone, the study suggested (Stock image)

Children who watched television with a parent had improved literacy compared to those who were watching screens alone, the study suggested (Stock image)

In a research briefing published in Nature Human Behavior, the researchers from Australian Catholic University wrote: ‘We found that it is the nature of the interaction that matters.

‘It is clear that digital platforms can be for the good, such as delivering interventions to improve educational outcomes.

‘But digital platforms can also lead to harm. Social media was a clear example of this: We consistently saw associations with harmful outcomes such as depression and risk-taking and did not find any meta-analyses that indicated a benefit.’

Participants included in the review were all under 18 years old. 

Surveys suggest the average American teenager spends 7.5hours in front of screens every day. Older children – or tweens – spend nearly five hours per day on devices. 

The researchers searched databases for meta-analyses — papers that analyzed the results of more than one other study— on screen time and children.

The 681 studies reviewed involved television time, as well as time spent viewing tablets, phones, computers and gaming consoles.

They found children who watched TV with a parent had improved literacy compared to those who were glued to screens alone.

This finding made no mention of how long the parent and child were watching television together. 

Researchers suggested watching television with parents may improve reading scores because parents often drive what the child watches — raising the likelihood of viewing an educational program.

They may also ask a child questions about the program, which encourage kids to engage with and research the topic.

A similar association was found with video games, which were beneficial only when the games were designed to teach numeracy — the ability to understand and work with numbers.

Researchers also found viewing advertisements on digital devices like televisions and computers more often led to unhealthier food choices.

Social media was also ‘consistently’ associated with poor health and showed ‘no indication of potential benefit’, the team said.

There was strong evidence that using social media increased the risk of depression and harmful behaviors, such as unsafe sex and substance abuse, they added.

Overall, results showed screens may be effective at delivering learning, but are not necessarily more effective than other methods.

US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy warns that ‘excessive’ screen time can impact brain development and too much screen time has been associated with obesity, poor sleep, language delays and behavioral problems. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use, except for video chatting, in children younger than 18 months old. 

For kids 18 months to two years, the AAP recommends only ‘high quality’ content and not allowing the child to view it alone. 

In two- to five-year-olds screen time should be limited to one hour.  

Dr Murthy has also suggested 13 is too young for children to be on social media platforms because, although sites allow children of that age to join, kids are still ‘developing their identity’. 

In the latest paper, the researchers recommended updating guidelines from focusing on minimizing screen time and to focus on type of screen use.

Guidelines should be re-formulated to discourage high levels of social media and internet use, but should be adapted to promote the use of educational apps and video games. 

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