Screen Time is Not Harmful to Children

Contrary to what American pediatricians have been reporting for years, in a statement just released by British pediatricians, they suggest that screen time use is not harmful to children. While the headlines suggest that British pediatricians support a free-for-all regarding children’s screen time, the report from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health suggests otherwise. Its main point is that there is no evidence of a direct relationship between screen time and mental or physical health issues but that the displacement of other healthy activities resulting from excessive screen time can be highly detrimental to children. The British pediatricians cited many studies indicating that screen time interferes with children’s sleep and described how inadequate sleep can cause difficulty with children’s academic and emotional well-being. Their own study of more than 100 young people found that 88% of them said that screen time had a negative impact on their sleep hygiene.

One of the more interesting aspects of this study was the perspective provided by the youngsters who were interviewed about the impact of screens on their lives.  Thirty-five percent of the respondents reported that the screen time had a negative impact on their mood and mental health, while 18% said that screen time had a negative impact on their family time and schoolwork. Other common concerns were that screen time stressed them out and reduced in-person connections. However, study participants also had many positive things to say about screen time, including the capacity to learn from media, the entertainment value of screen time, and the ability to reach a wider community. The study also quoted the participants’ recommendations to other young people:  find a balance of screen time and other activities, make sure that your health always comes first, and exert self-control about how much time you spend on screens

Anti-screen and anti-technology organizations are likely to take the headlines of this study (even though they describe screen time as not harmful) as an opportunity to cite the evils of kids’ screen use. From our perspective at LearningWorks for Kids, that approach is counterproductive, as screens are here to stay. Screens are a  major part of children’s lives and necessary for their education. In addition, mastery of technology is key for many future vocations.

At the same time, the draw of these technologies is so powerful that excessive, abusive, or problematic screen time use is rampant among kids and adults in the United States. It is unreasonable to think that screens are going away or that we can totally restrict kids from them. However, it is reasonable for families and child care professionals to encourage, expect, and structure children’s lives so that they have a healthy Play Diet that balances digital play with social, physical, creative, and unstructured play. Our screen time recommendations from LearningWorks for Kids essentially mirror those of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health. A child who has a healthy Play Diet, which should vary based upon developmental level, family sensibilities, and the child’s interests, will not be negatively impacted by screen time because it will not displace positive activities.

Part of the reason that kids spend so much time with technology is that parents and childcare professionals do not have effective strategies about how to handle excessive screen time use. Many adults battle excessive screen time themselves, so modeling for self-regulation is often poor. In addition, the addictive power of technology can totally engage children’s minds and lives. Parents often focus on telling kids that screen time is bad for them, but many kids realize – just as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health stated in their report – that it isn’t screen time itself that is bad but that it displaces other, more important activities.

Check out the following posts for some practical strategies to promote a healthy Play Diet and to balance screen time with other activities:  

Should I put my Child on a Play Diet?  Describes how to know if your child needs a better balance of digital play with other activities.

Using a Play Diet to Limit Screen Time  Describes basic limit setting and structuring strategies.

Developmentally Appropriate Play Diets  One of a series of five articles that describe healthy Play Diets for children ages birth to 2 years, 2 to 5 years, 6 to 9 years, 10 to 13 years, and 14 years and older.  

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