Screen time

From WikiMD

Screen time is the amount of time spent using a device with a screen such as a smartphone, computer, television, or video game console. The concept is under significant research with related concepts in digital media use and mental health.

People using phones whilst walking

Mental health relationships

A systematic review of reviews published in 2019 concluded that evidence, although of mainly low to moderate quality, showed an association of screen time with a variety of health problems including "adiposity, unhealthy diet, depressive symptoms and quality of life". They also concluded that moderate use of digital media may have benefits for young people in terms of social integration, with a curvilinear relationship found with both depressive symptoms and overall wellbeing.[1] A 2017 United Kingdom large scale study of this "Goldilocks hypothesis"—of avoiding both too much and too little digital media use[2]—was described as the "best quality" evidence to date by experts and NGOs reporting to a 2018 UK parliamentary committee. That study concluded that modest digital media use may have little adverse affects, and even some positive associations in terms of well-being.[3]


According to author Jordan Shapiro, the term "screen time," originally referring to the amount of time a movie actor appeared onscreen, first garnered a negative connotation in a 1991 article in Mother Jones Magazine, when journalist Tom Engelhardt used it to imply that children-as-consumers, watching advertisements for toys and breakfast cereal, were now the stars of the show[4]. Recently, the term screen time has been used in a negative context.

The phenomenon itself has existed since the technology has been available to the general public. The installation of television by Americans was more rapid over the 1950s than any other information and communication technology to come before.[5] With the increase in the technological advances, the use of devices consisting of screens, such as TV, computers, laptops and cell phones, increased resulting in the increase in screen time. In the late 1990s, adolescents spent an average of 1.5 to 2.5 hours per day watching television.[6] Similar averages are present across nations in North-American, European and Asian high-income countries.[6]

Some experts have suggested that excessive screen time is harmful especially if the content is violent. Others disagree. Many attempts have been made to reduce or control screen time. In the 1970s the “television-free” movement emerged with an appeal to reduce the screen time.[5] The Children’s Television Act (1990) provide the children with more educational programming and the Telecommunication Act of 1996 grant parents a way to control the television content.[6] Both of the Acts put restrictions on how the screen time is used.

Currently, most child development specialists tend to recommend "coviewing," the practice of watching or consuming media with others, or as a family[7]. Research dating back to the 1970s, which looked at Sesame Street, found that "children who watched most frequently learned the most and this held true across age, sex, geographical location, socioeconomic status, mental age, and viewing location"[8]. Most experts stipulate that parents and caregivers should watch with their children in order to mitigate the possibility of negative media effects and increase the likelihood that children will learn from the media they consume. In 2011, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop proposed updating the term "coviewing" to include new digital, interactive kinds of screen media; in a major report, they proposed the new term: "Joint Media Engagement"[7].

Screen time and children

A child using a tablet

How much screen time a child receives may depend on socioeconomic status and race. Research in the United States states that African-American (69%) and Hispanic (68%) children have rates of a television in the bedroom that are twice as high compared to white children (28%).[9]

Some studies suggest that too much screen time can affect a child's health, potentially leading to sedentary behaviors,[10] sleep disturbances, and more. One study found that children may consume an extra 167 calories per day for every hour of television viewing.[11] The same study also suggests that children want to eat what they view on the television screen.[11] Many studies suggest that screen time may cause children to eat absentmindedly, and therefore, some researchers argue that it is linked to (but not necessarily the cause of) an increase in obesity.[12]

The study of increased screen time in children is fairly new[13] and researchers have not been able to observe effects long enough to make a solid conclusion on potential positive and/or negative consequences. However, aside from its effects on health, the American Academy of Pediatrics have identified other potential risks that can come with excessive screen time. They include "exposure to inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsafe content and contacts; and compromised privacy and confidentiality."[14] Nevertheless, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their recommendations on children's media use in 2016. The new (current) guidelines acknowledge "the ubiquitous role of media in children's lives" and are less restrictive than the previous ones: “What’s most important is that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor.’ That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.”[15]

In January 2019, the United Kingdom's Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health issued a guide for clinicians and parents, explaining that there is "essentially no evidence to support" the idea that screen time is directly toxic to health. They did acknowledge that there is some evidence that screen-based activities may displace or supplant other positive activities, leading to an 'opportunity cost' in terms of other beneficial activities.[16]

Additionally, digital literacies have been found to contribute to a child's operational skills, knowledge and increased understanding of the world.[17] A child is also able to develop their communication and creativity in the classroom. In fact, young children tend to use the same natural instincts with technology than they would with a brand new toy.[17]

Screen time and sleep disturbances

With the increased amount of technology in the home comes an increase of certain specific health effects due to the fact that the accumulated amount of daily screen time in children ages 8 to 18 grew from five hours to eight hours from 1996 to 2016.[18] Some of the health effects that can be brought about with increased screen time are lack of sleep due to late bedtimes, arousal from media sources which leads the inability to sleep, daytime tiredness, trouble internalizing and/or externalizing problems according to the study done by Justin Parent.[18] Some research suggests that the light from electronic screens can affect the circadian rhythm of children and disrupt alertness. These same studies found that for young children ages 3–7, the amount of sleep disturbances greatly increases after six hours of screen time, and for children 8-12 the amount of sleep disturbances greatly increased after the 10-hour mark. After four or six hours of daily screen time, sleep duration drops for adolescents.

Some research suggests that screen time close to bedtime prevents children from getting adequate sleep. Research suggests that social media and internet use, 30 minutes before bed, is associated with disturbances in sleep patterns of children.[19] Use within two hours of bedtime is associated with less total sleep and a later bedtime as well.[20]

Screen time and development

A January 2019 study of 2,441 children in Canada found that compared to children exposed to relatively low levels of screen time, children exposed to higher levels of screen time at ages of 24 and 36 months correlated to low scores on developmental tests at ages of 36 and 60 months, respectively. The authors did not observe the reverse correlation, that low scores were associated with increased screen time, suggesting that extensive screen time might distract from “high-quality caregiver-child interactions" and therefore, may correlate with the impairment of optimal development of children.[21][22] The study's effects size was extremely small and the "Limitations" section acknowledged the problem with a "unidimensional focus on screen time," recognizing that all screen time is not created equal and that further research needs to differentiate the type of screen media in which children are engaged.[22] In media interviews related to the study, the authors conceded that the data used to measure the effects of screen time on young children is problematic because it can't keep up with the pace of rapid technological innovations.[23]

Internet and screen time

The use of the Internet expanded in the 1990s. This caused the increase in the usage of devices that could access the internet and the increase in screen time. In 2001, an average user spent 83 minutes online.[24]


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  2. 5.0 5.1
  3. 6.0 6.1 6.2 . pp. 25, 133
  4. 7.0 7.1
  5. . Further analysis of original data published by Commonsense Media was conducted on October 4, 2012 by Melissa Saphir and Vicky Rideout at the request of this publication, page 26.
  6. 11.0 11.1
  7. 17.0 17.1
  8. 18.0 18.1
  9. 22.0 22.1
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