Let's Talk About Screen Time
Take the alarmist claims with a big grain of salt.
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
If there’s one thing my kids have loved about the pandemic, it’s how much more screen time they’ve had. We instituted new limits at the start of this school year, but our kids are still spending far more time on their tablets than they did before March 2020. It’s been less of a choice than a necessity: How else can parents juggle work and all their other responsibilities with the kids home so much? Something’s got to give, and it turns out, thank God, that iPads make excellent babysitters.
But with these shifts have come huge doses of guilt. Has all this extra screen time been screwing up our kids?
In an ideal world, sure, our children wouldn’t be spending the afternoons watching YouTube. But this isn’t an ideal world, is it? We’re in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, and everyone is stressed to the max. We have to consider the massive constraints on our lives before we judge ourselves. We are trying to survive and make ends meet in a world in which both of these things have become increasingly difficult, so yeah, we’ve had to make adjustments. And that’s OK. It’s what had to happen.
There’s another good reason for us to stop berating ourselves about screen time, too: The research really does not back up all the alarmist claims we see in the media. Yesterday I spoke with a psychologist and parent I very much respect who had just finished reading my book, and she said that the chapter that made the biggest impact on her was my chapter on screen time — it was quite reassuring, she said.
So because it’s Friday, and Omicron is stressing us all out again, I’m going to share some of my research on screen time so that you have one less thing to worry about this weekend. (And if you want to read more, including tips on how to help kids develop good relationships with technology and social media, read my book!)
Understanding the Research — And Its Limitations
First, let’s unpack how we would be able to tell if screens and technology really, truly harmed kids. Ideally, you would design an interventional trial that randomly assigned some kids to get tons of screen time and some to get none, and then you would watch them for years to see what happened to the kids in each group. But of course we can’t do that — these kinds of trials are hideously expensive, for one. But more importantly, since there’s an assumption that screens are harmful, it would be unethical for researchers to plop kids in front of screens just to see what screens did to them.
So instead, the studies that have been done on screen time have generally compared how much time kids spend on screens with measures of overall well-being or diagnoses like anxiety or depression. Yet these findings only provide correlations — a study might find that a certain amount of screen use a day is linked to a higher risk of depression in kids — and they don’t actually say anything about cause and effect. They don’t tell us how screens affect kids over time, nor can they determine whether screens are actually the cause of the outcome they’re investigating.
For instance, kids who spend a lot of time on screens can differ in many ways from kids who spend little time on screens. They may have different family backgrounds, go to different kinds of schools, and have different levels of privilege, just to name a few possibilities. Researchers try to statistically “control” for these other factors, but the controls don’t always work well.
Even observational studies that follow kids over time can’t establish causality with certainty. If a study finds that three-year-olds who watch TV for more than two hours a day are more likely than other kids to have attention problems at the age of eight, we can’t be sure TV was the instigator. There may be differences among these groups of kids that shape their risk for attention problems. Maybe kids with burgeoning attention problems tend to like or use screens more, or perhaps some third variable drives the relationship (maybe kids with unstable family situations use screens more, and the unstable family situation is what increases their risk for attention problems).
Another problem is that the outcomes researchers look at can be vague. Many studies assess the relationship between screen use and overall well-being, but findings can differ depending on the definition of well-being researchers use. When Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, and Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the University of Oxford, analyzed all the possible ways in which screen use could correlate with well-being in adolescents based on various definitions of the word and other plausible variations, they found that there were literally thousands of ways to interpret the data, and that some conclusions directly contradicted others.
And of course, kids can do many different things on screens. They can watch videos, create videos, chat with one another, build apps, use apps, surf the internet, use social media, and more — yet most studies lump these activities together into a single “screen time” measure, even though they undoubtedly each have distinct effects.
The type of app or video matters, too; watching cute cat videos, Orben said, is almost certainly going to have a different impact than watching videos of people harming themselves or others. (Orben pointed out that researchers generally have to lump all kinds of screen use together, because even though technology companies collect data on what individuals specifically do or watch, the companies usually don’t share these details with independent researchers. Sure would be nice if they did!)
When kids use their screens might matter, too. In a 2017 study, Przybylski and his colleague Netta Weinstein found that screens are linked with fewer negative effects when used on weekends. And most research looks at how screen time relates to outcomes on average, when there can be wide variations in terms of how screen time affects different individuals.
Finally, studies tend to rely on people estimating how much time they spend on screens, yet self-reports are hugely unreliable — both because people aren’t very good at gauging how much time they spend online and because sometimes they intentionally fib. A 2016 study found that only one-third of individuals accurately and honestly report how much time they spend online; 42 percent overestimate it, and 26 percent underestimate it. Parents, too, are terrible at gauging how much time their kids spend on screens. A 2020 study found that 36 percent of parents underestimate their kids’ screen time, while 35 percent overestimate it.
When I spoke with Orben, she used a helpful analogy. If a scientist walked up to you right now and said, I know exactly how your child is going to react after eating the equivalent of five sugar cubes, you would probably laugh in her face. How a child reacts to sugar depends on a lot of things. If a child has uncontrolled diabetes, the sugar could be deadly; if a kid just finished an exhausting basketball game, the sugar might provide a source of much-needed fuel. Also, is the sugar provided during a meal, or on its own? Is it in the form of gummy worms, or applesauce? The context matters — and the same is true for screens. Yet right now, with screen research, we don’t have this kind of context, so we really can’t make meaningful conclusions.
I think it’s important to understand the limitations of the research on screen time because we are all constantly being bombarded with news reports about studies “proving the dangers of screens” or “showing that screen time is harmless.” In reality, no study conducted today can provide us with this kind of clear conclusion — and I think it’s empowering to know to be skeptical of such sweeping claims.
Case in point: In a September 2017 article titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” published in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, argued that screens make kids unhappier, lonelier, more sleep deprived, and more depressed. Twenge, who has conducted much of the research behind these claims herself, is regularly cited in articles about the dangers of screen time for kids. One of her arguments is that, because adolescent well-being and happiness have precipitously dropped since 2012, and that’s the same year that half of all Americans began owning smartphones, digital media must be the cause of this plunge in teen mental health.
But the scientists I spoke to, and the research I read, was largely skeptical of Twenge’s findings and how she interprets them. Because again, these kinds of broad claims are not warranted based on the research we have. In fact, one study, published directly in response to one of Twenge’s papers, used longitudinal data — which tracks people over time — to analyze the relationship between social media use and depression in adolescents, and it found no evidence that social media leads to depression. Instead, it found evidence to suggest that the causal arrow might point the other way: Teens who are first depressed (especially girls) are then more likely to use social media. (Am I worried about the recently leaked Facebook data on the effects of Instagram on girls? Absolutely. But for balance, please also read this excellent piece by Jessica Grose.)
Keep in mind, too, that our instincts about the dangers of screens and games are nothing new — society always freaks out about new types of media. In ancient Greece, Socrates worried that if enough people learned how to write, it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” In 1854, Henry David Thoreau griped that inventions like the telegraph were an “improved means to an unimproved end.” And in the 1740s, a moral panic arose over the potentially dangerous effects of novels, which critics worried would lead people to lose touch with reality and emulate the dangerous characters they read about. They particularly worried about the effects of fiction on women — that it might take women away from their domestic duties and inspire them to run off with new suitors. I wonder what those eighteenth-century prudes would think of Fifty Shades of Grey?
So What Can We Conclude?
On average, the size of possible screen effects on kids appears quite small — perhaps even too small to be meaningful. In a study published in January 2019, Orben and Przybylski analyzed data involving more than 350,000 adolescents. They found that digital technology use is associated with only 0.4 percent of the overall variation known to exist in adolescent well-being — meaning that kids who use screens a lot are, on average, only very slightly different on measures of well-being compared with kids who rarely use screens.
In fact, when Orben and Przybylski compared the association between screen time and well-being with other things, they got amusing results. They found, for instance, that screens are linked with decreases in well-being that are about the same size as the decreases in well-being associated with eating potatoes, and that wearing glasses is linked with even bigger well-being drops.
In other words, when people argue that screens ruin kids’ brains, they should also know that eating potatoes and wearing glasses are potentially just as dangerous — the size of the possible effect is about the same. Now, importantly, we’re talking about average effects — so screens could be particularly harmful or helpful for certain kids, and again, the impact almost certainly depends on the content and the context.
In a way, from what we know about how different kids can be from one another and how broad and heterogeneous the term “screen time” is, parents, not scientists, are probably the best equipped to assess how screens affect their kids — because the impact largely depends on details that parents know best. Parents are also the best equipped to tell if their kids are becoming anxious or depressed, at which point they can investigate whether screen use or social media might be a cause.
All these same limitations, by the way, apply to research investigating the link between violent video games and aggression. Studies do suggest that kids who play more violent video games are more aggressive — but we don’t really know what that means yet.
In a meta-analysis of two dozen studies on the topic published in 2018, researchers found that after statistically controlling for several other factors, the relationship between violent games and aggression was very small, and that games accounted for less than one percent of the variation in aggressive behavior among US teens and pre-teens. But again, the effect on a specific child will almost certainly depend on the game, the kid, and how regularly he or she plays.
It’s also important to mention a few good things about digital technology for balance. Ninety-four percent of teens say that they use social media to connect with people they already know in real life. Most teens who play games say the same, and they also say they feel more connected with friends for doing so. In a 2018 Common Sense Media survey of American teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, most said that social media had a positive, rather than negative, effect on how they felt about themselves. Only 3 percent of surveyed teens said that social media made them feel more lonely or depressed.
Kids have created some cool and constructive apps and websites, too — like Sit with Us, an app made by a sixteen-year-old in 2016 that ensures that kids don’t have to eat lunch alone. In 2017, a teenage boy created an app to organize the caregivers who looked after his grandmother with dementia. It’s now called CareZare and is available for free. Many apps and games can be educational and creative, too. I’m pretty sure my son learned to read in part because he was obsessed with the app Endless Alphabet when he was a preschooler. During the pandemic, he has spent much of his screen time playing online chess and coding on the site Bitsbox, which I suspect are building, rather than destroying, his brain.
“For many of us, social media is an exercise in (mostly) consumption,” wrote digital citizenship expert Devorah Heitner in her excellent book Screenwise. “But for others, social media is a creative outlet. It’s a chance to make new things, to show off creativity, to get feedback, and to share and learn.”
Don’t forget that you can give the gift of science-based parenting advice this holiday season! Below is a beautiful gift certificate you can print out, too.
And of course, you can give my book as a gift, too! You can even order a personalized signed copy through my local bookstore, Split Rock Books. They’ll gift wrap it for you, if you want, and send it anywhere in the U.S.