Is Too Much Screen Time Affecting Your Child’s Health?
New research links digital media usage with lower mental health outcomes.
Posted November 5, 2018 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In a new, groundbreaking study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, researchers at San Diego State University suggest that more than one hour per day of screen time for children ages 2 to 17 is associated with lower psychological well-being.
This news may come as a shock to many parents, as one hour of screen time is hardly the norm in today’s households.
The study measured screen time by the combined use of TV, electronic games, computers, electronic devices, and cell phones. The most significant effects were found among 14- to 17-year-olds whose screen time usage was high, 7 or more hours per day. These users were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or sought help for a psychological issue in the past year.
Generally, the study showed that more hours of daily screen time were associated with less curiosity, more difficulty with friendships, more distractibility, less emotional steadiness, and less ability to complete tasks.
If screen time creates conflict in your family, you are not alone. Greater amounts of screen time were also associated with more arguing between children and parents.
Let’s dig into this research and understand what it means for families and kids.
Screen Time Research Has Been Historically Inconsistent
Previous studies about screen time have examined a broad spectrum of aspects related to well-being. Yet they have produced inconsistent results. Some have supported the notion that screen time is correlated with low well-being. Others have found no effects or even benefits.
This is the first study to go beyond reported symptoms of anxiety and depression in children to examine the actual diagnoses of anxiety or depression in the studied population. For this reason, the study is compelling and adds to a growing body of research that should be of interest to parents and educators.
Study participants were the parents or caregivers of more than 40,000 children drawn from data conducted in 2016 by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). Children who had conditions including intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, and autism were excluded from the study because these conditions can also affect psychological health.
Results of the Study
The most important results of this research were the associations discovered between screen time and well-being. In general, after one hour per day, increasing amounts of time spent with electronics was correlated with progressively lower psychological health.
The total screen time reported for children ages 2 to 17 averaged 3.2 hours daily. The average time was progressively higher for older children, primarily as the result of electronic device usage. The largest increase in time spent with electronics occurred between elementary and middle school. In high school, teens spent an average of 4.5 hours in front of digital screens.
Not surprisingly, adolescents were the highest screen time consumers, often 7 or more hours per day. These high users possessed twice the risk of suffering from low well-being than their counterparts who used screens an hour or less per day. They were 95 percent less likely than low users to be calm, curious, or task-focused. They also had significantly more arguments with their parents.
Even moderate adolescent users, defined as 4 hours per day, were negatively affected by screen time in similar ways as high users. They were from 60-78 percent less likely to be curious, calm, and task-focused than low users.
Beyond reported symptoms like increased arguing, less self-control, and difficulty with friendships, the San Diego State University Study examined actual diagnoses of mental health conditions in children with varying degrees of screen time.
High users of electronic devices were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety than low users. They were also more likely to have been seen by a mental health professional and more likely to be on medication for a mental health issue.
Understanding and Applying the Research
Like all research studies, this study must be interpreted and applied in the context of many other studies. It is impossible, for example, to know if screen time causes reduced well-being or if low well-being causes children to spend more time with their devices, or both. What we know for certain is that there is an association between low well-being and higher screen time.
What does this mean for parents?
First, parents must understand that screen time is one factor that may affect a child’s well-being. In today’s digital age, it is becoming a very important factor. Strategies for managing screen time must become part of every parent’s toolbox. More importantly, children must be taught how to manage their own screen time. From middle through high school, adolescents gain more and more control over their own time and must understand how to regulate themselves.
While setting specific limits on screen time for various age groups is a good start, it is not enough. As educator Alfie Kohn said, “Kids learn to make good decisions by making good decisions, not by following directions.”
Children learn to make good decisions about their screen time in the same ways they learn to make positive decisions in other areas of their lives, including through trial and error and by the modeling of parents. Parents teach children to manage themselves by creating their own good screen time habits and by developing their kid’s internal strengths, like curiosity, self-awareness, and resourcefulness.
Screen time is a complex 21st-century issue for child development. The following resources contain screen time recommendations as well as developmental strategies that may help guide parents as they grapple with the mental health effects of digital media:
- American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations for Children’s Media Use – Recommendations, tools, and resources for families.
- Managing Screen Time Increases Family Joy – How six small changes in screen time can have big impacts for families.
- Successful Kids Need 8 Core Abilities: How to Parent with Purpose – Summary of internal attributes that help children thrive and make good decisions.
- A Covenant for Honouring Children: Children’s singer/songwriter, Raffi, created this covenant from the principles of positive child development.
- Healthy Digital Media Use Habits for Babies, Toddlers & Preschoolers – Published by HealthyChildren.org
- What The Screen Time Experts Do With Their Own Kids – NPR’s article sharing how leading health professionals manage screen time in their own homes.
Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003