Some experts are linking too much screen time to poor sleep and childhood obesity—but what should parents do in the face of conflicting opinions?
If you scrolled through your social media last week, you might have come across a headline about how a whole generation of smartphone users is growing horns. The sensational story was shared again and again—and picked up by multiple news outlets—but it wasn’t long before experts began to question the science behind the claims. It turns out that the study, which was initially published in peer reviewed scientific journal, had some flaws. As one writer points out, these kinds of tech stories can create a sense of panic—and once they’ve gone viral, they can cause great anxiety around tech usage.
It can be similarly tricky to interpret the science around screen time for children—and the issue has spawned its own parental panic and societal judgments. Adding to that anxiety, there seems to be no clear consensus among the experts about how much, how often and what type of screen time is healthy for kids. A quick google search of the topic returns countless blog posts, news articles and academic studies—often with conflicting opinions.
This can leave parents in a tough spot, because screen time undoubtedly has positive attributes: it’s educational and enjoyable for kids, and it provides a much-needed break for busy care-givers. Even though we’ve all seen the benefits of screen time for families, questions about the consequences can linger. Below, we explore what the experts are saying about screen time, physical activity and sleep—and how parents can find some balance in the different opinions.
Screen time and physical activity
The Expert Opinion: Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released new screen time guidelines for kids under five. Their recommendations are broken down by age: screen time is not recommended for children under one, and no more than one hour per day is recommended for children one-to-four years old. These guidelines are in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that children under 18 months avoid screens other than occasional video chats.
Important to Consider: The WHO screen time recommendations are tied to an effort to curb childhood obesity. For them, the danger of screen time is that it’s sedentary, and they’re suggesting limiting it as a means of encouraging more physical activity. Importantly though, they don’t spend much time distinguishing between different types of screen time. Some experts point out that there is a lack of scientific evidence to support the guidelines—mostly because it’s difficult to gather good data about physical activity for this age group. Others also worry that the WHO recommendations are not proportionate to the potential harms of screen time. Their advice? Every child is different when it comes to physical activity—and consider these recommendations in the context of your own kid’s needs.
Screen time and sleep
The Expert Opinion: The National Sleep Foundation suggests that parents keep their kids away from tech for better sleep. According to their website, for every hour spent on a screen, infants and toddlers lose an average of 15 minutes of sleep, while older kids can miss out on as much as 26 minutes. They recommend keeping children under 18 months away from screens altogether (unless it’s a video chat), and restricting screen activities to educational content after that. They also recommend using screens together with your kids, whenever possible, so you can control the duration and enhance the learning opportunities.
Important to Consider: While there is a correlation between screen time and impaired sleep, not all experts agree on its impact or significance. According to a study from the University of Oxford, every hour of tech use caused toddlers to lose between three and eight minutes of sleep. So, while the relationship between screens and sleep does exist, it might be too small to make a significant difference. Similarly, Michael O. Mireku, a lecturer from the University of Lincoln, has also found a relationship between tech use and sleep disturbance in kids. Rather than total time spent on screens, his research looked more closely at lost sleep in kids who used tech in the hour right before bedtime, but he recently told the New York Times that the findings need to be confirmed by future research. He says for now, parents should just be aware of the possible association.
Finding the right balance
While we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our smartphones aren’t going to give us a horn any time soon, unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy to sift through the expert opinions on screen time for kids. The competing points of view show that the issue is far from straightforward.
Limits on screen time can be a useful tool, but it’s important to consider other factors: a new body of research is emerging that focuses less on duration and more on quality. The Canadian Pediatric Society recently released screen time guidelines without cut-and-dried time caps, precisely because some screen activities are beneficial, while others can be harmful. Here are a few tactics they suggest for managing screen time:
- Create a screen time plan as a family—and stick to it
- Don’t bring screens into non-screen activities, like homework time or family dinners
- As kids begin using screens independently, periodically check in their activities to make sure they’re safe
- Enjoy screen time as a family, whenever possible
In the absence of expert consensus, parents are also well-served to weigh all the opinions—and make the best decision for their kids. And as you navigate screen time with your kids, keep an eye out for opportunities to guide them and show them what healthy digital habits look like.
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Image Credits: Gary Perkin / Adobe Stock, Alaric Sim / Unsplash, Nd3000 / Adobe Stock