New Study Indicates Recreational Screen Time For Kids Makes Very Little Difference

from the leave-them-kids-alone dept

When I became a parent nearly seven years ago, I tasked myself with reading up on what to expect and how to be a good parent. Among many more important things, one prominent point of reading that led to many discussions in our household was screen time for children. And, as you might expect, that conversation has been ongoing to date. There are lots of theories out there about just how much screen time kids should get at certain ages, but the unifying force behind those theories typically is that it should be relatively limited. Some nations have even gotten into the game of forcing screen time limitations on children, or at least many have gone that route for targeted types of screen time, such as video games.

But what if I told you that all that worrying done by parents, all the reading on the topic, and all of the effort put into it by governments is basically for nothing? Well, that seems to be the main conclusion reached by a new study that finds that the impact of recreational screen time on children is statistically negligible.

Even when kids spend five hours a day on screen – whether computers, television or text – it doesn’t appear to be harmful. That’s what my colleagues and I at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered after analyzing data taken from nearly 12,000 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study – the largest long-term study of its kind ever in the U.S.

The participants included children between the ages of 9 to 10, from diverse backgrounds, income levels and ethnicities. We investigated how screen time was linked to some of the most critical aspects of their lives: sleep, mental health, behavior and friendships.

Now, there are a ton of caveats to all of this. The most important of those include that this is a correlative study, not one looking for causality. It's also a narrow age group being studied, even as the study has an impressive sample size. And there were also both positive and negative correlations uncovered.

For instance, increased screen time in the sample group correlated to stronger interpersonal relationships with peers. That would be the opposite of the old parental dogma that suggests that looking at a screen means you aren't going to have any friends. On the other hand, increasing screen time on the far end of the spectrum did correlate with declining sleep and academic performance. So what does this mean? Screen time is good? Screen time is bad?

Perhaps neither one: When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations. That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it’s unlikely to be important at a clinical level.

Some kids scored lower than others on these outcomes, some scored higher; screen time only explained 2% of the difference in the scores. This suggests the differences are explained by many variables, not just screen time. It’s a very small piece of a much larger picture.

Which should mostly tell us what we already know: outcomes in children are nuanced and complicated, involving many factors, and every child's needs are different. What isn't true, based on this study, is that parents should be given blanket recommendations on the amount of screen time their children should be allowed to have.

And, because, again, these are correlative studies, even correlation found doesn't equate to screen time being a root cause.

For example, we found that adolescents who spend more time on screens may display more symptoms of aggression. But we can’t say screen time causes the symptoms; instead, maybe more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior.

There are so many boogeymen set up for parents to jump at these days. At the very least, it's probably time to make it so that reasonable spectrums of screen time for children are not on the list.

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Filed Under: children, screen time, studies


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  • icon
    dbrower (profile), 27 Oct 2021 @ 9:52pm

    This is the content I came here for.

    My priors are firmly reinforced!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 27 Oct 2021 @ 11:13pm

    "But we can’t say screen time causes the symptoms; instead, maybe more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior."

    My first thought is that it's more likely that families that continually palm their kids off to devices to babysit/entertain them are simply more likely to have underlying issues that create problems than families that don't do that, through necessity or choice. It's a symptom, not a cause, from what I see.

    "That would be the opposite of the old parental dogma that suggests that looking at a screen means you aren't going to have any friends"

    Which is a dogma that goes back to before most current parents of minors were born, if not before their grandparents were born, since they heard the same thing about TV. A typical generational fear of new technology has led some people to think that spending your time playing a videogame or using the internet is fundamentally different to passively watching TV for hours on end, but I suspect there's little real difference. Once this generation starts having their own kids, there will probably be another version of the fear.

    "On the other hand, increasing screen time on the far end of the spectrum did correlate with declining sleep and academic performance. So what does this mean? Screen time is good? Screen time is bad?"

    It means the same as pretty anything else - it's good in moderation but when you start going to extremes it might be a problem (or exacerbate other underlying problems).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 6:30am

      Re:

      has led some people to think that spending your time playing a videogame or using the internet is fundamentally different to passively watching TV for hours on end, but I suspect there's little real difference.

      That depends on whether the difference between passive and active engagement matters. Also, you can make friends online, but not watching TV or playing single player games.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 29 Oct 2021 @ 5:03am

        Re: Re:

        Yes, and no. One thing to remember is that social interaction is not limited to the game itself. It's possible to play FPS games and mute channels and never really communicate outside of the game itself, while it's also possible to make lifelong real world friends by talking about the TV show/movie/single player game afterwards in other venues.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 9:07am

      Re:

      "On the other hand, increasing screen time on the far end of the spectrum did correlate with declining sleep and academic performance. So what does this mean? Screen time is good? Screen time is bad?"

      It means the people who aren't sleeping might choose 'screen time' as one of the things to do when they aren't sleeping.

      2% is also practically insignificant.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 6:38pm

      Re:

      It means the same as pretty anything else - it's good in moderation but when you start going to extremes it might be a problem (or exacerbate other underlying problems).

      If anything, it prepares them for a new global paradigm of the blurred boundaries between work and leisure. Even before the pandemic, the idea that employees can - and should - always be within reach of a laptop or mobile phone or any device linked to work has become deeply pervasive and entrenched. And these attitudes spill over to schooling as well. If a kid is going to be home most of the time and/or attached to a device, why not load them with coursework?

      This leads to the new phenomenon that's been trending among youth workers: revenge bedtime procrastination. If you're not going to have opportunities for leisure while constantly being at the beck and call of an industry that believes in the 996 work schedule, when else are you going to find time and space for personal sanity aside from going through your phone in the dead of night?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Oct 2021 @ 11:53pm

    any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it’s unlikely to be important at a clinical level.

    That was my conclusion as well 20 years ago when I would regularly reset the clock mandated by my parents back to 01:17h remaining time (of 01:30).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Flakbait (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 5:54am

    "There are so many boogeymen set up for parents to jump at these days."

    These days? There's a new one every couple of months. Screen time, whether it be TVs, PCs or some handheld device, have been a low-intensity bugaboo since Philo T. Farnsworth unleashed the demon boob tube on an unsuspecting humanity in 1927. Some of them really explode, like Dungeons and Dragons in the early 80s, which has remained a constant instigator of low-intensity parental panic ever since.

    I'm sure there are others but I don't recall them because I dismissed them out-of-hand since my experience with D&D (I had been playing for about a year when the panic set in).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 6:37am

      Re:

      To add to the analogy, Dungeons and Dragons used to be the Satanic game that the youth played to commune with Satan and learn magic, and now it's an innocent evening activity that parents play with their kids. We can watch computers going the same way.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 7:18am

      Re:

      I can't be bothered to find it, but there is a list out there of successive generations decrying letter writing, newspapers, the phone, flim, the television, the internet, email, social media, et al. as bad as each new means of communication is demonized before being accepted and canonized and then supplanted by the next communications medium which is seen as a step too far.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 9:09am

        Re: Re:

        Don't forget th evils of chess. Or reading books.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 29 Oct 2021 @ 4:54am

        Re: Re:

        The waltz, jazz and chess were at some point considered to be scandalous activities that would lead to the inevitable destruction of society. The only constant seems to be that as a younger generation ages into being parents, they understand how ridiculous their own parents' fears were, so they demonise whatever new has come about since they were kids.

        I find it hard to imagine what would be concerning to a generation that grew up on the internet that doesn't already exist as a scapegoat, but I'm fairly sure they will find one.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 7:03am

    This just in!

    On the other hand, increasing screen time on the far end of the spectrum did correlate with declining sleep and academic performance. So what does this mean? Screen time is good? Screen time is bad?

    Adolescents working excessive hours at 7-11 while attending school show declining sleep and academic performance!

    Adolescents training excessively on basketball courts found to have declining sleep and slipping grades (except in P.E.)!

    Adolescents not getting enough sleep, and not attending to their schoolwork show declining sleep and academic performance!

    ... but this is a correlative study, mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 7:43am

      Re: This just in!

      If we cared about students getting proper sleep, we wouldn't be making them get up around 7 in the morning just for the convenience of parents who need to get to work. There are plenty of studies showing the detrimental effects of that, much more significantly than these screen time studies—even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claim schools start too early. Anyone who's taught or attended an early class will have noticed the perpetually-groggy students. People like to handwave it away and say they should just go to bed earlier, but that certainly never worked for me—going to bed when I'm not tired means I'll be laying there awake, sometimes long enough to get a headache that keeps me awake even longer. (Maybe that's something a doctor should've been consulted about, but, then, that just brings us to the problems of the American medical "system"...)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 9:11am

        Re: Re: This just in!

        If we cared about students getting proper sleep...

        Then the entire world would not work the way it does, full stop.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          None, 29 Oct 2021 @ 3:19am

          Re: Re: Re: This just in!

          I first wanted to correct your sentence, but then "not" could be seen as "the way something works", which makes your sentence absolutely true.

          But then, why wouldn't we want the system to not not work?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2021 @ 7:11pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: This just in!

            But then, why wouldn't we want the system to not not work?

            Because if the system is unsustainable, praying for the system to not not work doesn't actually fix anything. It simply entrenches existing biases, cut corners, and a philosophy of "growth at any cost".

            Constantly increasing the standards and requirements that students, subordinates and employees have to deliver on will eventually plateau. You can't make people more hardworking, constructive or capable simply by turning on the tap beyond its limits or squeezing a person for all the value they can give with no opportunity for recovery. Yet this is what organizations and companies, by and large, expect and demand. They coerce workers on the ground to play along with the threat of unemployment and insist that there's always another obedient bootlicker to replace them if it comes to it.

            You want things to not not work because what you have simply hasn't worked. Is it selfish to want the world to burn because things haven't worked out for you? Arguably so. But when you've burned out from a system that regards you as little more than a number to be extracted of its resources, then tossed aside like a rotten fruit peel, you start wondering why such a system hasn't burned itself out.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 7:23am

    My guess is a lot of this also depends on what the screen time is.

    Are you watching Sesame Street or Sponge Bob? Is it a FPS-game or Minecraft with a friend? Both of those could be significantly different in their impact and potential social/educational value. By lumping it all together you loose a lot of that nuance.

    Is there something else going on in the household that is driving the kids to watch this many screens?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Oct 2021 @ 9:13am

      Re:

      How much nuance do you want to squeeze out of any correlations at all for a statistically insignificant number of people?

      If that's your cup of tea, that's why one does follow-on studies, replication, and testing one's pet hypothesis.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      pseudopod (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 1:45pm

      Re:

      Correlations broken down by type of screen time are in supplemental tables at the bottom of the article

      https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0256591#pone.0256591.s006

      Annoyingly, each one is a Word file containing the table.

      Bottom line, is the different types of screen use don't matter too much. Nothing jumps out like "oh wow, look at how bad the kids are who play violent games!"

      These kids are only 9-10 years old, so there isn't much social media use in this sample yet.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 29 Oct 2021 @ 4:59am

      Re:

      "Are you watching Sesame Street or Sponge Bob? Is it a FPS-game or Minecraft with a friend?"

      I assume that in both of those examples you're saying that the first has more value than the second, but I don't necessarily buy that. There's value to all 4 things named, and sometimes the value is not directly related to the activity itself - for example, a kid might be inspired to learn how to create their own animations after watching Spongebob, while the FPS player might end up learning way more about useful software development creating their own mods than the Minecraft player learns by using the in game interface.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 7:44am

    But but but it has to be the technology that is wrong!!
    It can't be parents to focused on giving their children better than they had but forgetting that the thing kids really need is their parents involved with him not just giving them more & expect things will take care of them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 9:03am

    Long ago and Far away...

    "They" said our generation was ruined by watching too many cartoons in the late 50's. I guess that "screen time" was really bad for us...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 29 Oct 2021 @ 5:01am

      Re: Long ago and Far away...

      Some people who watched a lot of TV in the 50s "wasted" some of their youth while waiting for adulthood. Others were Steven Spielberg and Stephen King...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ceyarrecks (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 10:11am

    Focus Change Required,...

    referencing the previous article, this one, and the whole topic of "Nannies" is really MISSING THE POINT.

    The Point being, that for a huge number of generations (seemingly in all countries, not just 'merika) children have been progressively(purposefully?) taught less, and Less of How to be a Mature, Responsible, Considerate Adult, and left to remain more and More the Selfish, Petulant, Irreverent Child they were born.

    These above processes are also detailed in the same IRRESPONSIBLE vein, where the "child" is accused of being in the wrong that the parents were responsible for.

    Want to see change?

    Allow the Fathers actually love^ their family.
    (As opposed to his being chased away or neutered/castrated from said responsibility[and gee, i wonder who it was that did said chasing away and/or castrating, huh,...])

    ^yes, this is a super-over-simplified statement, better to start with milk BEFORE you get to the 3" thick Steak.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      TaboToka (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 10:21am

      Re: Focus Change Required,...

      Allow the Fathers actually love^ their family.
      (As opposed to his being chased away or neutered/castrated from said responsibility...

      Projecting a little hard there, buddy. If a father doesn't have his act together, is not emotionally mature enough to be responsible, then perhaps he isn't fit.

      On the other hand, there are lots of us fathers who do love our kids, who see violence as not a form of control, but of an out-of-control, emotionally damaging act.

      If you want to do something to your kid that would get you arrested or put in the hospital if you tried it against another adult, then maybe you don't know what you're doing, so either get educated or GTFO

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TaboToka (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 10:33am

    A study!

    Whenever I hear about some study, I tend to dismiss it until/unless it is published in a peer-reviewed, reputable journal. Never forget no-longer-a-doctor Andrew Wakefield's garbage "study" that has caused immeasurable damage to thousands if not millions of children.

    With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to see this is a published study. For interesting reading, check out the reviewers' comments and discussion about the study data.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      pseudopod (profile), 28 Oct 2021 @ 1:48pm

      Re: A study!

      Yes, posting a story about a scientific publication and not linking to the original article is the same as posting about a court's ruling and not linking to the original decision.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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