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How can children actually benefit from screen time?

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Most parents and caregivers are very familiar with the shame and stigma that comes from allowing too much screen time in their homes. Screen time drastically rose during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic as parents juggled working from home with full-time childcare duties, and there are no shortage of articles and studies highlighting how detrimental too much screen time is for developing minds. While most doctors, childhood development experts and educators agree on the downsides of too much screen time, research in recent years has also pointed to some positive effects on kids when used in moderation.

Oxford, Cardiff and Cambridge University Study

According to a study published in 2019, based on data from over 35,000 American children and their caregivers, “...children spending between one to two hours a day engaged in television-based or digital device activities are more likely to demonstrate higher levels of ‘psychosocial’ functioning than non-users. Put simply, this means they are likely to have better levels of social and emotional well-being than non-users.”

Some other interesting findings from the study include:

  • On average, children spend one hour and 41 minutes engaged in television-based activities such as gaming and viewing films
  • On average, children spend one hour and 53 minutes engaged in device-based activities using tablets and smartphones
  • Children could watch over four hours of television-based activities before showing any signs of functioning difficulties 
  • Children could engage in over five hours of device-based activities before exhibiting significant functioning difficulties

"Very few children, if any, routinely use television and device-based screens enough, on average, to show significantly lower levels of psychological functioning. Instead, these findings indicate that other aspects of digital engagement, including what is on screens and how caregivers moderate their use, are far more important,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Ways Parents Can Make Screen Time Beneficial

It’s important to note that in the Oxford study, all screen time was self-reported by children and caregivers, and that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended guidelines of daily screen time for different ages. But assuming screen time is likely going to play some role in our children’s upbringing, parents and caregivers can set out to make the most of it by doing a few different things:

  • Make co-viewing the norm. Children as young as 18-months-old can benefit from digital media when it is a participatory activity done with a parent or caregiver. This means parents should be interactive while watching television, for example, pointing out different concepts and blending them into their daily lives at home with their child.
  • Opt for high quality and educational content. As most parents and caregivers know, not all digital media is created equal. Try to make your child’s screen time as educational as possible, choosing programs on television and online by organizations like PBS Kids and Sesame Street. Keep your child’s interests in mind and select programs that encourage active engagement or participation.
  • Use digital tools to promote school readiness. E-books are a form of screen time that can help children prepare for school. The best way to benefit from reading e-books is with adult participation or “dialogic reading,” where parents and caregivers ask questions about the story to ensure comprehension or how the story can apply to their child’s day-to-day life. Children as young as kindergarten age will likely use an I-pad or other digital device in their classroom, so having some working knowledge of digital media is never a bad thing.
  • Utilize screens as a way to connect with family members. The COVID-19 pandemic led to increased use of Facetime, Zoom and other video chat platforms by children over the past couple years. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) deemed it safe for children to use these tools alongside their parents to connect with friends and family. When unable to be with someone physically, video chat tools allow children to maintain relationships and interactions that support social development. 
  • Have a ‘family media plan’ in place. Understanding that today’s children will grow up in a very digital world, the AAP recommends that parents and caregivers establish a family media plan to guide decisions regarding everything from screen time allowed to which social media platforms teens can join. The goals of a family media plan would be to establish set rules every member of the family acknowledges and follows. Some guidelines may include dedicated screen-free time as family, media consumption that supports family values, communal device charging areas outside of the bedroom and screen time goals that support a healthy balance of sleep and exercise/movement.

For more screen time resources, including how to make a screen time plan for your family, visit the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry online at www.aacap.org, or the American Academy of Pediatrics at www.healthychildren.org.


By ABC Quality Team on December 13, 2022