10 min read

Is screen time actually bad for children?

Is screen time actually bad for children?

Talk about a loaded question.

But it's a question that we as parents have to ask ourselves because we're faced with two conflicting realities:

  1. Everyone tells us screens are bad for our kids.
  2. It is impossible to remove screens from our lives.

I try to avoid giving people advice. It is extremely rare to get good advice that is 100% applicable to your personal context. Instead, I try to tell people what does or doesn't work for me in my own context.

The flip side of this is that I'm wary of any and all advice from others.

So I can't help but be suspicious when I see things like this from The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry:

Your child is never too young for a screen-time plan. Consider the following as a guideline:

  • Until 18 months of age limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town).
  • Between 18 and 24 months screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
  • For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days.
Fry sus eyes

We're also hit with lots of scary reasoning for this:

Too much screen time may lead to:

  • Sleep problems
  • Lower grades in school
  • Reading fewer books
  • Less time with family and friends
  • Not enough outdoor or physical activity
  • Weight problems
  • Mood problems
  • Poor self-image and body image issues
  • Fear of missing out
  • Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun

You know what else may lead to all of these problems? Too much knitting. That's why I'm going to to put my children on a knit-time plan before they're 2.

Seriously, though. All that stuff sounds very alarming.

But today more than 5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Digital display manufacturers will crank out 3.8 billion new additional screens per year. That’s nearly one new screen each year for every human on earth.‌‌‌‌We will start putting watchable screens on any flat surface. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards, and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. ‌‌‌‌Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls, and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work—regardless of what we do. ‌‌‌‌We are now People of the Screen.

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

We are People of the Screen.

But we don't want our kids to be Children of the Screen. (Sounds like a horror movie.)

Quite the conundrum. And it leaves us a lot to think about.

The concept of "screen time" is dumb

How many things do you do on a screen? On an average day, I'm likely to:

  • Communicate with colleagues
  • Write and edit educational content on NativShark
  • Read articles related to our business
  • Read and respond to customer feedback
  • Read books
  • Look at memes
  • Have video calls with family living in other countries
  • Send or receive pictures and videos of loved ones
  • Watch children's shows with my son
  • Play educational games with my son
  • Check my email
  • Write posts for this blog or other personal projects
  • Make to-do lists
  • Check the weather
  • Use a calculator
  • Browse and play podcast episodes
  • Order a ride from a taxi or driving service

Being obsessed with attention management, I'm one of those weirdos who doesn't talk on the phone, has zero notifications enabled, and doesn't use social media, but I'm still using screens all day.

Should I lump all of the above activities under one label? "Screen time." Too much of it! I'm a terrible person. The end.

No, that would be ridiculous.

So why would we do that for our kids?

Our son is just over 18 months old, and he easily watches a couple of hours of YouTube per day. He's especially fond of channels like Cocomelon and Loo Loo Kids — those ones that play animated nursery rhymes. The kid just loves music.

There is a difference between:

  • Watching YouTube shows by himself when his parents are busy
  • Watching YouTube shows with a parent who is singing along and enjoying the time with him
  • Playing interactive games on a tablet
  • Having a video call with him grandma overseas

These are all screen time, but they all engage his brain in varying ways. I've noticed that he only starts mimicking the movements they do in shows if I mimic them first. He gets better at games when he sees me complete challenges first. He's more interested in video calls if his grandma is with people (or animals!) he doesn't know. These activities are not all the same for him or his brain.

But screens are bad!

Screens can be bad. Too much of anything is bad. Additionally, since "screen time" can encompass so many things, it can also include very undesirable interactions and exposure.

What does the data say?

At first glance, it's pretty scary. But when you take a deeper look at it, you're often just left with the same question you started with:

How much screen time is too much for my child?

Below are some examples being quoted in this Luminate article on screen time:

A study reported in January in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, looking at data on 2,400 children, found that more screen time at ages 2 and 3 was linked to poorer performance on measures of development at ages 3 and 5.

"Measures of development" is referring to ASQ-3, which is a questionnaire given to parents. I just skimmed through the free sample they have for 16-month-old kids. At that age, my son would have gotten full points on almost every question... except for anything to do with talking. He has absolutely zero interest in speaking. He is and always has been more or less silent, although his hearing is fine and he understands some words. I suspect that this is due partly to the fact that I speak to him in English, his mom speaks to him in Japanese, and his grandma who babysits him 24 hours per week speaks to him in Korean. It's confusing! And it probably doesn't help that his mom and I are just not good at talking to babies and toddlers. I can't help but talk to him like an adult.

In short, everyone's different. We all have different experiences, come from different contexts. And tests — especially surveys — are never fully accurate. The study says ASQ-3 matches up with other test results like Bayley Scales of Infant Development and the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales, so that makes it seem pretty legit.

But what I really want to know is what these kids who got "more screen time" were watching. Was someone sitting with them? What was the reason they were watching it? What time of day was it? Was it to get them to sit still while they ate or was it to make them quiet during play time? Was it a TV, a tablet, or a phone?

These are the types of questions I find myself wondering again and again when I'm faced with the results of these studies:

Daily screen time of 3 hours or more was linked in one study of 4,495 children age 9 and 10 to an increase in several risk factors associated with diabetes, including body fat and insulin resistance.

Again, what time of day is this screen time taking place? What is it substituting? Maybe kids who have these risk factors were already less likely to get out and exercise in the first place? What are they supposed to do if that's the case and they're staying home anyway, stare at the wall?

More than 2 hours of weekend screen time was linked to decreased bone density in boys age 15–17 in a study published in BMJ Open.

Does this have anything to do with screens? It seems like this is just talking about lack of physical activity in general. But the real question here is: How the hell did they find boys in this age range using screens fewer than 2 hours per weekend?

Adolescents spending more than 7 hours on screens daily were twice as likely as those spending 1 hour or less to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, according to a study last year in Preventive Medicine Reports.

Maybe they're looking at screens because they're anxious or depressed? I like to escape or turn off my brain when I'm feeling down, too.

Brain function was better for children who spent no more than 2 hours on screens and who got sufficient sleep and physical activity, according to a study in the Lancet.

This last one seems especially ridiculous. You could probably swap out "brain function" with "feeling happy", "making friends", or "losing weight." Everything gets better when you sleep and get exercise.

I'm not trying to argue that screens are good or bad.

That's like trying to decide whether plastic is good or bad. We have a lot of awesome products that use plastic. It also pollutes the ocean. Maybe, just maybe, it's both good and bad?

As for the studies described above, I just don't believe that large data samples will provide the insights I need for my children in my family.

Other researchers agree with me that maybe we are jumping to the wrong conclusions based on the data we have:

There is little clear-cut evidence that screen time decreases adolescent well-being, and most psychological results are based on single-country, exploratory studies that rely on inaccurate but popular self-report measures of digital-screen engagement.

"Self-report measures" sounds exactly like most of the studies listed above.

What about my child's brain?!

This is it, the scariest claim I've managed to find so far:

Early data from a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children who spent more than two hours a day on screen-time activities scored lower on language and thinking tests, and some children with more than seven hours a day of screen time experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not that worried about "language and thinking tests." I see my son learning more and more every day, and it's amazing.

But shrinking brains? That doesn't sound good.

The results make sense, though. If you do any single thing for 7+ hours a day, I doubt you're going to have a well-rounded brain, so to speak.


Yet again, I can't help but wonder what these kids were doing.

Was their screen time active? If you're playing a multiplayer video game where you need to talk and strategize with your teammates, that requires a lot of thinking and reasoning. If you're playing a game with a large, open-world map, it probably improves your spatial memory.

Or was it passive? If you're just sitting back and watching TV shows, you don't have to think much at all. If my son is just zoning out and enjoying some nursery rhymes, he's not challenged all that much to do things.

Or was it somewhere in between? If I'm singing along with the nursery rhymes on the TV and doing all kinds of hand gestures, yeah, my son could just sit back and enjoy the show. But more often than not, he tries to join in or at least examine the way I'm moving my body. He wants to be a part of it.

It seems to me that when we say "screen time," we're generalizing far too much. That single phrase is covering activities with a range of values.

Restriction begets obsession

Back when I was a kid — maybe 7 or 8 years old — there was a birthday party at my house. One of the adults was filling up a piñata, and they accidentally tipped it over, and little pieces of candy fell all over the floor.

Several of my friends from school dropped to the floor and started snatching up the candy as fast as they could.

I felt disgusted and embarrassed for them, although I didn't quite understand why.

Candy wasn't a big deal at my house. My mom had it sitting in dishes on display, and I was welcome to go into the cupboard or fridge and grab any kind of snack I wanted. Because of this, candy didn't feel special to me in any way. For me, the piñata was exciting because we got to smash it with a bat, not because a bunch of candy would spill out of it.

The marginal utility of candy was super low for me.

In economics, utility is the satisfaction or benefit derived by consuming a product; thus the marginal utility of a good or service is the change in the utility from an increase in the consumption of that good or service.

In the world of unschooling, which I've been exploring a lot lately, people often mention an article about this, "Economics of Restricting TV Watching of Children," which states:

When you restrict an activity, you keep the person at the point where the marginal utility is really high.‌‌‌‌When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person's thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.

I'm inclined to agree.

And while I am somewhat concerned about the potential negative effects of using screens a lot, I am even more concerned about making screens seem like a special treat to my children. Surely there are some positive effects, as well, like the fact that the people most skilled at using technology are more likely to be successful in the future.

When is more rules ever better?

Almost never.

Rules suck. And all too often they're made with the best interests of everyone... only to make people suffer in other, often unintended ways.

I want my kids to think that life at home is fun and fulfilling. Yeah, we'll have some rules. But we'll have them for clear and easy-to-understand reasons.

And they can use screens whenever they want. But we'll be there beside them, helping them to decide what's on the other side of the screen, the best way to interact with it, and how we can enjoy it together.

Check back with me in 20 years and I'll let you know if it rots their brains.