Screening Out Screen Time
Published on July 15, 2015 by Gail F. Melson Ph.D. in Why the Wild Things Are


It’s become a mantra lately that we are all rapidly becoming addicted to our screens, small, medium and large. We obsessively check our email, chomp at the Twitter feed and bury our faces in Facebook.  Apple Watch and other soon-to-come wearable devices ensure that screens will never have to leave our bodies. The disquiet many of us feel at these developments—and I am typing this on a screen right now, with my smartphone perched nearby—turns to downright worry when we see our children. Kids are growing up screen-saturated. That may be having serious consequences for development.


How much is too much? Overall, children are spending an average of three hours a day in front of the television, but other screens are taking up even more time.  When all screens are considered, a staggering 5-7 hours a day, on average, are spent sitting and staring. Given the proliferation of screens, this is not surprising. At least 75% of families with young children own a mobile device, with the percentage growing daily. Even though the American Pediatric Society’s guidelines urge no screens at all for infants and toddlers under two years of age, 38% of children under two years of age have used a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet. This problem is world-wide, at least throughout countries with industrialized economies. For example, in a 2007-2008 large-scale study of 5-year olds in the Netherlands, nearly 9% had a television in their bedroom and over 15% had a computer there. The study authors estimate that the percentages have risen dramatically since then. In the U.S., at least 36% of children under 8 years of age have a TV in their bedroom.


What’s the effect of all this screen time?  Research studies converge on a number of factors positively associated with amount of screen time: a television in the child’s bedroom, few or no rules limiting TV watching, fewer family meals, less physical activity, higher rates of obesity, and higher average blood pressure.  Parents who are indulgent or neglectful—with few rules, little monitoring, and high child autonomy—tend to have children watching screens for longer times. A very strong correlate of children’s screen time is their parents’ own viewing. Parents who watch more TV have children who do so as well. In fact, in one nationally representative sample of parents, children under two years of age doubled their TV watching when parents were high TV viewers themselves. Similarly, computer use was five times higher for children under two when parents were high computer users.


These studies cannot claim that more screen time actually causes these adverse outcomes, but the links are strong and consistent across diverse age groups and family backgrounds. For example, in one study of 2-11 year olds, the association between screen exposure and Body Mass Index (BMI), an indicator of overweight or obesity, held regardless of the child’s race, age, or sex. In this study, the best predictor of obesity was the presence of a TV in the child’s bedroom. In interviews, parents whose children had a TV in their bedroom contended that it reduced sibling conflict over what to watch, let each family member watch what they preferred and helped in bedtime routine (i.e., the child could watch TV until ready for sleep.)


How to dim the screen? One frequently advocated strategy is to encourage parents to set rules and limits on screen time. One way to do that might be to counter the misconceptions that some parents have about the “benefits” of a TV in their child’s bedroom. Getting research results out to parents might help convince many that tech is not an unalloyed good. When the number of screens is reduced and shared by the whole family, screen time becomes family time. This forces parents and children to negotiate programs, apps and video games.


But who can blame parents after an exhausting day of work and commuting for wanting to avoid just that? Tech trends also are working against parents’ best intentions. Screens continue to proliferate. Many schools are making it a priority to supply every child with a tablet.  As educational programs, games and apps become pervasive and available 24/7, parents are understandably confused. Perhaps more screen time—if it’s packed with educational material—is the way to advance a child’s achievement? A 2006 survey found parents of children under six years of age closely divided on the merits of television viewing, with 38% saying “it mostly helps learning,” and 31% saying “it mostly hurts learning.” More unanimity emerged around computer use, however, with 70% of parents feeling it helps learning. The idea that tech is good, and more of it is better has seductive power, since parents and teachers (and everyone else) are glued to their smartphones and tablets.


Nonetheless, grass roots efforts are proliferating to take back family life from the grip of screens. Some families try out a “screen free” day, perhaps coinciding with the Sabbath or Sunday, taking seriously the idea of a “day of rest.”  Other families use a “drop box,” a basket to deposit smartphones and tablets along with car keys when family members return home.  Keeping all screens—not just the television—out of the bedroom helps model screen mastery (and promotes better sleep too). Other families are rethinking the link the between screen time and being sedentary.  Why not take the smartphone outside to photograph birds or flowers? Why not make a video of a trek through the forest?  In these ways, the screen can be a motivator to move, not an excuse to plop down on the couch. Above all, many parents are becoming aware of how their own behavior models screen addiction.  When a mom or dad sets limits on TV or video games, but obsessively checks their smartphone, parental behavior trumps rules. The link between parental screen time and child screen time is a strong one. Freeing our kids from screen addiction requires shaking off those shackles ourselves.