How Is Screentime Affecting Your Child's Well Being?

How Is Screentime Affecting Your Child's Well Being?

By Stuart Dredge

Screen time is one of the biggest headaches in my parenting life, and it’s only gotten more stressful as my two sons have gotten older and more capable with consoles, tablets, and computers. In fact, the overriding theme of Christmas 2017 in my house was a running battle over screen time.

At least it was an educated battle, from my perspective.

Over the past couple years of writing about kids and technology, I’ve encountered a number of screen-time studies that challenged some of my assumptions and changed my parenting approach in this area. Here are six that continue to strike a chord.

 

Screen-Time Guidelines Aren’t Set in Stone

What’s the Study?

Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University interviewed 20,000 parents of two-to-five-year-olds, asking about their children’s screen usage and its impact on their happiness and behavior. The study’s aim was to find out whether the often-quoted guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics—limiting screen time to one hour a day for two-to-five-year-olds—remains correct.

Key Finding

“Taken together, our findings suggest that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing. If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time.”

How It Changed My Parenting

The parents in this study had younger children than my kids, ages eight and 10, but the key findings still rang true for me: This isn’t just about setting time limits, and screen time can be something creative and fun that we do together, rather than something my children do alone while I nag them to come out on a walk.

“Actively engaging in exploring the digital world together,” at its most basic level, now involves me getting walloped at Rocket League by my joyful eight-year-old rather than leaving him to it, or sitting down with my ten-year-old to watch his favorite YouTube channels together.

The study made me realize that I’d often been treating my children’s screen time as time when I could get other stuff done (like cooking dinner, unloading the washing machine, or working). I was surprised at how pleased they were when I expressed an interest in joining them instead.

This research also reminded me that screen-time guidelines aren’t set in stone: They need to be updated regularly based on the latest knowledge of what children are doing and how it might be affecting them. Speaking of which, the study also led me to the latest update on the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, which are about more than just setting a time limit. They also include good advice on co-viewing and structuring “media-free” times.

 

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Devices at Bedtime Really Aren’t a Good Idea

What’s the Study?

Researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine interviewed the parents of 234 children between the ages of 8 and 17 about their children’s sleep and technology habits. Their aim was to find out whether more use of devices was harmful for their sleep.

Key Finding

“Using any device at bedtime was associated with a statically significant increased use of multiple forms of technology at bedtime and use in the middle of the night, reducing sleep quantity and quality. Little association was found between technology use and inattention. A statistically significant association was found between bedtime technology use and elevated body mass index.”

How It Changed My Parenting

In this case, the research reinforced something I’d only ever had a fuzzy sense of in the past: Devices before bed aren’t good for your sleep, and it has something to do with “blue light.” We hadn’t ever made tablets a part of our children’s bedtime routines, even if I still struggle to apply this rule to my own late-night habits.

Still, the study reminded me to give short shrift to children’s apps designed for bedtime use — “relaxing sleepy stories” and suchlike — although I’ll admit to still sticking my own tablet in my eight-year-old’s bedroom, set to play a peaceful-piano Spotify playlist to help him get off to sleep (passcode-protected so he can’t swipe it for under-the-duvet Angry Birds action).

Less positively, this study made me worry about how any parent can deal with the bedtime/sleep issue as children become teenagers with their own smartphones. Do we take their devices from them before they go to bed? Or is dialogue the key—showing my kids some of this research and trying to convince them that getting quality sleep is important?

 

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Signs Your Child Might Be Addicted to Tech

What’s the Study?

A survey by researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development to measure “screen media addiction” among four-to-11-year-olds.

Key Finding

“How children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction…there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.”

How It Changed My Parenting

This was another study that jarred me out of thinking that screen-time parenting was just about setting a certain number of hours. It also nudged me to look more carefully at what my children were doing with their devices and, crucially, how it was making them feel.

My eight-year-old son in particular shows several of the traits identified by the research: He finds it hard to stop playing games, for example, and he becomes frustrated when he’s not allowed to use a screen and will sneak a tablet up to his room given half a chance.

Actually dealing with this? That’s still in progress. We’re trying various things, from clearly flagging in advance that he’ll have to put the device down soon (“This is your 10-minute warning”) to setting a rule that he isn’t allowed to play Rocket League online (because he was coming up against much better players, losing heavily, and getting furious).

The key point: This study made me realize the blowups weren’t just a case of my son behaving badly—he needed our help to avoid some of those flashpoints.

 

Reading with Your Children Has a Big Impact

What’s the Study?

A survey by researchers at the University of Salford asking 131 caregivers of children ages six months to three years old about the children’s media usage and vocabulary. It aimed to see if there is a link between screen time and vocabulary size—that is, do more screens mean fewer words?

Key Finding

“Time spent reading positively predicted vocabulary comprehension and production scores at 6–18 months, but time spent engaging with television or mobile touchscreen devices was not associated with vocabulary scores…Thus, as long as time spent reading is not reduced in place of television and mobile touchscreen activities, children’s media exposure should not adversely affect their vocabulary size.”

How It Changed My Parenting

The message is surprisingly simple: If you make time to read to your children when they’re young, any other time they spend on screens may not be as much of a concern.

This study looked at kids much younger than my own, I should note, but even my eight- and ten-year-old aren’t (yet!) too old to enjoy a bedtime story — even if they grumble when encouraged to switch roles and read to me. And taken with the other research on devices before bedtime, this study also encouraged me to keep buying (and borrowing, when I could find our library cards) physical books for the purpose.

(As a side note, this study also made me change my own evening habits: Less flicking between social networks and news sites, and more paperbacks — specifically fiction. I can’t promise that my vocabulary is swelling at the age of 40, but trying to make time for reading has been positive overall.)

 

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Maybe WE Have the Screen-Time Problem

What’s the Study?

A study published in 2017 of 170 U.S. families exploring “whether parental problematic technology use is associated with technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions, termed ‘technoference,’ and whether technoference is associated with child behavior problems.”

Key Finding

“Almost half (48%) of the parents in the study admitted to three daily incidents of technoference in their interactions with their kids, and the researchers say that these seem to correlate with young children being more prone to whining, sulking, restlessness, frustration and outbursts of temper,” explained the Guardian in its write-up.

How It Changed My Parenting

I’d never heard the word “technoference” before, but it struck a fairly bleak chord with me. All that time worrying about how much my children were using screens, but what if the person with the problem was me? In truth, it didn’t just take an academic study to make me realize this: My 10-year-old in particular had told me several times to “stop looking at your phone” when we were playing football or chatting at bedtime.

Physician, heal thyself! I’ve been making an effort by leaving my smartphone downstairs around bedtime (the device’s manufacturer is doing its bit to help by making a battery that needs a charge by that point in the day), turning off as many notifications as possible, and generally (even when my kids aren’t there) keeping it in my pocket or face-down on a table for most of the day.

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