Screen Time

“Screen time” is an often misunderstood and misused phrase. It is important to understand to what we refer when we say “screen time,” if we use the phrase at all, and empower ourselves with current facts.

In October of 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its guidelines to drop a hard-and-fast rule about length of time children of any age should be using a digital device. Previous guidelines did not control for important variables, and were therefore overly restrictive. The current state of the literature helps us better understand what does or may cause harm, and what does not.

A 2018 integrative literature analysis by the Peterson Nursing Research Colloquium found that the most important factors in limiting screen time are parenting choices, parent technology use for themselves, cultural norms, and the child’s self-efficacy.

At Discovery Elementary School, the teacher-guided, in-class utilization of digital educational technology within the context of a learning task is not recreational, and most studies around screen time fail to account for content. The most common myth about “screen time” is that prolonged use of digital screens regardless of content is, itself, detrimental to all children in all cases. This is not borne out by the body of research literature on the subject. There was a time when people were deeply concerned about low-level electromagnetic frequency (EMF) radiation from consumer electronics, for example; there is no evidence to support that this is so.

There is another deep misunderstanding of “blue light.” The incorrect myth is that all blue-spectrum light is “harmful” to people. This is not so. Read, for example, the information published by the Harvard School of Medicine, and you will find that the issue with blue-spectrum light is that it causes neurobiological wakefulness, and this can delay, interrupt, and lessen the duration of sleep, which is critically important for human health. Consequently, Discovery advises everyone to discontinue the use of screens and lights that emit wakefulness-inducing spectra at least 60 minutes prior to the time deep sleep should be underway. However, the idea that blue-spectrum light (the same spectrum that is emitted by the sun) is intrinsically and universally harmful to humans is not correct.

There are, however, scientifically-supported and important issues surrounding children’s use of technology that all adults should understand.

Sleep

One of the most critical of these issues is sleep. A 2015 review of the literature in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that in 90% of studies examined between 1999 and 2014, screen time was adversely associated with sleep outcomes including delays in getting to sleep and shorter sleep durations. It is important to note, however, in the current state of the scientific literature, the caveats found, including 1. correlation is not causation, 2. difficulties in accurately measuring variables, and 3. a lack of consistent controls about content. That said, it is generally accepted among educational technologists that engaging with a digital device screen in the hour prior to sleep can lessen the quality and quantity of sleep that is important for healthful development.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), the total amount of sleep (including naps) children should have in a given 24 hour period is as follows:

  • Ages 4-12 months: 12-16 hours (including naps)
  • Ages 1-2 years: 11-14 hours (including naps)
  • Ages 3-5 years: 10-13 hours (including naps)
  • Age 6-12 years: 9-12 hours
  • Age 13-18 years: 8-10 hours

These figures were endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) in the Summer of 2016. According to the AASM:“Regularly sleeping fewer than the number of recommended hours is associated with attention, behavior, and learning problems,” according to the statement. “Insufficient sleep also increases the risk of accidents, injuries, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and depression.” Likewise, too much sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes and mental health problems, the group said.

Electronic devices with light-up screens can disrupt and inhibit sleep according to a 2014 review of the research literature, which found that in 90% of adolescent-age sleep studies, the use of devices prior to bedtime directly correlated to disruptions in healthful sleep patterns. This is due both to cognitive stimulation as well as illumination, which increases alertness. Additionally, the more interactive the device, the more disruptive to sleep the effect, delaying and therefore reducing overall sleep, found prevalent in 72% of adolescents according to the National Institutes of Health in 2011.

Bottom Line: Using digital devices before bed, recreationally or otherwise, disrupts healthy sleep, which is critical for healthy development.

Solution: Children should not use digital devices beginning an hour prior to sleep time, and should not have digital devices in bedrooms. Parents can model this behavior by removing screens and devices from their rooms.

Exercise

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has found increases in childhood obesity and sedentary activities and decreases in vigorous physical activities, related to the increased use of digital media such as that found on television and through personal electronic devices. The National Youth Fitness Survey, part of the NHANES, has also found decreases in vigorous physical activities.

Based on the body of literature regarding health for children as of 2016, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 60 minutes daily of “moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” for children and teenagers.

The Human Kinetics Journal found in February 2018 that there may be a positive association between excessive screen time and lowered physical activity, and that lowered physical activity can have a detrimental impact on child fitness. Again, it is important to understand the science: This does not mean that screen time causes lower physical activity and lower fitness; it means that there might be a relationship between the two. This, to an educational technologist, is obvious: If we use our device a lot during any given day, we’ve probably not been as active as we should, and we need to make healthful decisions to account for that. This is one of the reasons we need to be thoughtful and to take responsive actions around our technology choices.

Bottom Line: Outside of the school day, developing healthy play and exercise habits that involve vigorous aerobics is important for healthy development.

Solution: Any family media plan should include 60 minutes a day of non-device play and/or exercise time. Include this when creating your Family Media Plan, specifically on the Media Time Calculator.

Communication versus Recreation

Research shows us that the best form of media for children is photographic instead of representative. In short, pictures and videos of real people and things is better for healthful brain development than cartoons or drawings, as children are able to analogize what they see in the physical world with the things they see on a screen. Many families use real-time video conferencing technologies, like Facetime or Skype or Google Hangouts, to connect babies to grandparents, for example. There is no compelling evidence that there is anything detrimental about this practice.

The more face-to-face and eye-to-eye contact children have, the better for their development. While there is of course no substitute for the loving, nurturing, safe, appropriate touch of the adults who care for children, providing an opportunity to interact with other loving, real faces and voices is entirely appropriate for even young children.

Self-stimulating and exploration activities like playing in a mirror are common observations among developing babies and toddlers, so placing a digital device’s camera on “selfie” mode and letting a young child mirror expressions and see themselves can be another appropriate use of this technology.

While these activities may indeed all be “fun,” developing communications skills and positive, prosocial interpersonal relationships is a different domain of brain development than simple entertainment.

Banning digital technology outright for children under the age of 2 could potentially deny children the opportunity to further engage with meaningful faces and voices in their lives.

Also, it is always essential to look at each individual child’s situation. It is not appropriate to make overgeneralized policies based on isolated case studies. (This is the “anecdotal” version logical fallacy.) It is true that some children who may exhibit ADHD-like behaviors may be doing so in relation to excessive digital media use, but it is not true that all children who may exhibit those behaviors are doing so because of that media use, nor is it true that said media use invariably leads to those behaviors. We must always take care not to conflate correlation and causation.

Bottom Line: Communicating with other people in appropriate ways, especially to foment and strengthen loving, appropriate relationships between friends and family, is a valid use of digital technology with potential benefits.

Solution: Don’t count video chats with Grandma against recreational screen time when keeping track of media use.

For More Information

For additional resources about “screen time,” visit CommonSenseMedia.org.


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Kan, P., Simonson, S. E., Lyon, J. L., & Kestle, J. R. (2008). Cellular phone use and brain tumor: a meta-analysis. [Abstract]. Journal of Neuro-Oncology, 86(1), 71-78.

Paruthi S, Brooks LJ, D’Ambrosio C, Hall WA, Kotagal S, Lloyd RM, Malow BA, Maski K, Nichols C, Quan SF, Rosen CL, Troester MM, Wise MS. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 2016;12(6):785–786.