Personal electronic devices have become an indispensable part of daily life, not just for adults, but for many kids as well. At home and at school, tablets, phones, computers, television, and video games expose kids to screens all day long. But what effects, if any, does screen time have on children’s developing brains?
That’s a question researchers around the world are trying to answer.
Children’s screen time is getting a lot of attention
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study® is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. Leading researchers in the fields of adolescent development and neuroscience at 21 research sites across the country are studying how different experiences, including screen-dependent activities like video games and social media, impact the biological and behavioral development of children through adolescence and into young adulthood.
What do we know now?
- Too much screen time in young children has been associated with lower levels of development compared with the average for their age group.
- A recently published study found that children from 3 to 5 years old who used screens more than the one hour a day recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics had lower levels of development in what researchers refer to as “white matter”—an area of the brain that plays an important role in the development of language, literacy, and cognitive skills. Too much screen time was also associated with lower levels of behavioral development.
- Another recent study found a relationship between higher levels of screen time in 2- and 3-year-old children and poorer developmental performance at ages 3 and 5, respectively.
- Too much screen time may play a role in depression and anxiety in older children.
- In yet another recent study, researchers found an association between electronic media use and depression and anxiety in pre-teens. It was not clear, however, if more screen time worsened these conditions or if the children engaged in more electronic media use as a result of being anxious or depressed.
What can parents do?
Every parent knows it can be difficult to control their children’s use of electronic devices. Every parent also wants their kids to grow up healthy. So, what’s a concerned parent to do? Experts offer the following suggestions:
- Follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- No screen time other than video chatting for children under 18 months.
- For children 18–24 months, parents should only use electronic media together with their child.
- For young children older than 2, no more than one hour of screen time.
- For all children, parents should set media limits. The AAP has an online tool to help parents create a personalized media plan for each child that takes into account their age, health, personality, and developmental stage.
- Ensure your kids are getting 8–12 hours of sleep each night with no electronic devices in their bedrooms.
- Encourage your kids to engage in activities that get them away from screens: physical activity, play, reading, and spending time together as a family (without devices) are good options.
- Create a family media schedule. If you’re looking for a place to start, Common Sense Media has some good resources, including a Family Media Agreement template you can download.
- As with all rules, consistency is important. Make sure caregivers and grandparents understand and follow the rules you set.
- Set a good example for your children. If you’re constantly on your phone, it may be more difficult getting them to accept the limits you set for them.