Student Well-Being

New Warnings on Screen Time, as Students Nationwide Move to E-Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 23, 2020 4 min read
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As millions of students nationwide start to settle into virtual learning programs to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a massive new research analysis sounds another note of caution about the effects of exposing children, particularly younger ones, to significantly more screen time.

A new meta-analysis out today in the journal JAMA Pediatrics finds that while high-quality educational screen content is associated with better language skills, more overall time on screens each day, regardless of its quality, is linked to lower language development.

“What we do see is, as the number of hours increases, so too does the risk for problematic outcomes,” said lead researcher Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary in Canada. “What this work suggests is that the quality of screen-viewing matters, but I think it all needs to be used in moderation.”

Researchers led by Madigan analyzed the quantity and educational quality of screen time—incuding television, computer, tablet, and even telephone programming—consumed by nearly 19,000 children under 12 across 42 studies. While earlier studies within the meta-analysis focused mainly on television use, later ones looked at laptops, tablets, and phones, and about a quarter looked across all modes. The researchers found similar trends across all types of screen time, and moreover, the dose of screen time seemed to build similarly regardless of what combination of devices a child used; for example, a child who spent two hours on tablet apps, watched a movie and then browsed around the internet for an hour had still spent five hours on screens.

That time could start adding up quickly for the millions of students across the country whose entire class days are moving onto screens during school closures. Surveys of average daily screen time, such as those by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media, have typically not included school time. And to be fair, Madigan said digital programming that has been specifically designed for children, to improve language skills, with narrative arcs they can follow interactively, tends to be associated with better language skills. It’s just that it will still need to be factored into the overall screen time children are consuming on a daily basis—something most families and even educators don’t do now.

“Teachers can also inform parents what they do that technically goes into the screen time hours that kids should receive in a day,” she said. “So being able to allow parents to know that if they watch that two-hour movie with an 8-year-old, at that point you’re actually hitting your max in terms of the number of recommended hours of screen viewing in a day. I think it’s important to communicate that back to parents to think about.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended back in 2016 that screen time of any kind be limited for those ages 2 to 5 to co-viewing with parents who can explain what is going on and for no more than 1 hour per day of high-quality educational programming. It had not put hard limits on screen time for school-age children ages 6 and up, but the academy said limits should be made and screen time should not interfere with children’s sleep or exercise habits.

Yet in the years since, research has suggested older children may also be affected by long periods online or in front of the television. A longterm, ongoing study of pre-adolescents shows those who spend hours of screen time a day across phones, tablets, and video games had lower cognitive skills, particularly in translating two-dimensional to three-dimensional objects. And studies of older adolescents and adults suggest reading in digital formats over long periods of time may reduce reading flow and comprehension, particularly for longer texts.

Educators Can Help

School leaders and educators can help mitigate the effects of expanding screen time, Madigan said, by encouraging and supporting parents in developing a holistic plan to incorporate children’s different types of screen time over the course of the week, and also by training parents in how to use online and video resources with their children.

“When parents sit down and watch screens together with their kids, that’s associated with language development. So that might be because they’re co-viewing: You can monitor what kids are watching, you can kind of help children’s learning because you can tell them what’s happening on the screen,” she said. “This can help children sort of make sense of what they’re watching and learn from it.”

In particular, the researchers found that boys were more likely than girls to see lower language skills associated with more screen time—but also to have greater benefits than girls did from co-using digital devices with their parents. In part, the researchers found, this was because on average, girls had higher language skills at each age range, so boys had greater windows for improvement, but Madigan said boys may also be less likely than girls to receive a lot of digital-related social interaction with their parents, particularly as they get older.

Photo: Tony Berastegui, 12, left, and his sister Giselle, 9, do school work via computer on the dining room table after the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close March 16, 2020, in Laveen, Ariz. New research suggests academic screen time should be taken into account with children’s overall screen consumption to avoid them getting too much. Source: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.