New findings add twist to screen time limit debate

Many parents want to know how much time their kids should be spending in front of screens, whether it’s their smartphones, tablets or TV.

For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics had suggested a limit of two hours a day of TV for children and teens.

But after screen time started to include phones and tablets, these guidelines needed an update. So last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its recommendations: No more than one hour of screen time for children ages 2 to 5; for older children and teens, they caution against too much screen time, but there’s no specific time limit.

This may give the impression that preschoolers are the only ones who need specific limits on screen time, with monitoring less important for older children and teens. Then a study came out last year suggesting that the imperative to monitor screen time for preschoolers may be overblown.

However new research conducted by me and my co-author Keith Campbell challenges the idea that vague directives and loose guidelines are the best approach.

Not only does this study suggest that specific time limits on screen time are justified for preschoolers, it also makes the case for screen time limits for school-age children and teens.

In fact, these older kids and teens may be even more vulnerable to excessive screen time.

A study muddies the waters

Several studies have found that children and teens who spend more time with screens are less happy, more depressed, and more likely to be overweight.

But a study released last year muddied the waters. Using a a large national survey conducted from 2011 to 2012, it found little association between screen time and well-being among preschoolers.

This led some to conclude that screen time limits weren’t important.

“Maybe you’re being too strict with your kid’s screen time,” suggested one headline.

However, this analysis examined just four items measuring well-being: how often the child was affectionate, smiled or laughed, showed curiosity and showed resilience – characteristics that might describe the vast majority of preschool children. This study also didn’t include school-age children or teens.

Diving into a more detailed date set

Fortunately, a version of that large survey conducted in 2016 by the U.S. Census Bureau included 19 different measures of well-being for children up to age 17, giving researchers a more comprehensive view of well-being across a range of age groups.

In our newly released paper using this expanded survey, we found that children and teens who spent more time on screens scored lower in well-being across 18 of these 19 indicators.

After one hour a day of use, children and teens who spent more time on screens were lower in psychological well-being: They were less curious and more easily distracted, and had a more difficult time making friends, managing their anger and finishing tasks.

Teens who spent an excessive amount of time on screens were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression.

That’s a problem, because this generation of teens, whom I call “iGen,” spends an extraordinary amount of time on screens – up to nine hours a day on average – and are also more likely to suffer from depression.