More and more, distress signals resound warning of the negative effects of screen time on childhood development. But are these the overblown fears of alarmists or the legitimate concerns of people who’ve done their homework? Do any recognized studies answer how screen time affects a child’s brain? These are important questions to address. This issue has only been around for a decade or two and remains a hot-button, politically charged one. Often with such issues, a study will come out indicating one way or the other and people will take it as gospel, regardless as to the study’s legitimacy, whether the data backs the conclusions, or before any peer review can be done. Therefore, it’s important not only to research but also some research into the research.
How Does Screen Time Affect a Child’s Brain?
If we’re going to accurately assess the impact of screen time on children, we cannot merely look at sociological factors like social skills, but also psychological and neurological factors. Both categories need to be considered. Thus, by way of introduction, screen time can affect children in the following ways:
- Behavioral issues
As a symptom of Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), children who use screens too much often struggle to regulate their mood and attention spans in appropriate contexts. For example, many smartphone games designed for children feature simple reward stimuli. When they score a point or perform a certain task in the game, a fun bell sounds, another character responds positively, or the game does something simple to indicate good performance. These moments essentially condition the child. Especially for younger children, they might learn that the world works in the same way. Therefore, when it doesn’t, children can act out aggressively in ways not typically expected.
- Irregular sleep
Frequent use of screens exposes children to constant flashes, bright lights, and other stimuli that can disrupt normal sleeping patterns. For example, if you lived in a bright, sunny environment 24/7, your sleep would get wildly thrown off. Your brain depends on decreasing light to begin to tune down. When children use screens a lot, it’s like they’re always in a bright environment.
Children who are more drawn to screen activities than physical activities develop a more sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to weight issues.They’re more likely to have friends with similar interests. Sure, that can be beneficial, but it also only encourages a sedentary lifestyle.
- Educational problems
As another symptom of Electronic Screen Syndrome, children who develop a dependency on screens can suffer educational problems. One study found that elementary school-age children who have televisions in their bedrooms do worse on academic testing.
Behavioral issues can become violent. While the relationship between exposure to violent movies and video games and violent behavior remains disputed, a child who’s used to the stimuli of screens can act out when the real world doesn’t offer the same stimuli.
Regardless, even some of these conclusions are not definitive. Children who act out violently may have already had a predisposition to such behavior. Some studies have found correlations between screen time and developmental problems, but correlation does not imply causation. More thoroughgoing research is needed.
Child Development and Screen Time
How do screens impact child development? As you might imagine, a child who struggles with behavioral issues, sleep schedules, weight problems, and educational problems will likely also experience child development problems. Recent findings regarding electronic screen syndrome aim to show “how interactive screen time impacts nervous system physiology and how these effects translate into symptoms that have become commonplace in today’s youths.” However, it’s important to note that ESS is not yet recognized by the DSM-V. Nevertheless, that does not mean this phenomenon does not exist.
With all that in mind, the findings of studies related to child development and screen time vary. A disputed study found:
Those who spent longer with screens at 24 months showed worse performance on tests at 36 months, and a similar trend was seen for screen time at 36 months and test performance at five years… When young children are observing screens, they may be missing important opportunities to practice and master interpersonal, motor, and communication skills.
In response to studies like this one, Dr. Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, “found less than 1% of children’s variation in developmental scores was down to screen time.” He goes on to say, “This means that upwards of 99% of the children’s developmental trajectories studied here have nothing to do with screens.”
Therefore, while excessive screen time causing behavioral issues might be plausible, whether or not it causes psychological development problems remains debatable.
The Chicken or the Egg: Social Skills
What about screen time and social skills? Does excessive screen time cause social anxiety, or does social anxiety lead to increased screen time? According to a prospective study in 2009, it’s the latter. Children who already experience some form of social anxiety turn to screens to cope. However, this may be a classic chicken or the egg situation. According to Dr. Jeremy Bidwell:
Screen time can reduce person-to-person interactions and limit social skills. It is becoming rarer to see children using their imaginations or playing outside. Instead, it is becoming much more common to see a group of children engrossed in their tablets. This loss of social skills is perhaps the negative issue that bothers people the most.
But have such statements been empirically proven? According to a study of 2,441 mothers and children published in 2019, “higher levels of screen time in children aged 24 and 36 months were associated with poor performance on a screening measure assessing children’s achievement of development milestones at 36 and 60 months, respectively.”
Benefits of Screen Time?!
Few of the things mentioned can be considered conclusive. While exorbitant screen time may negatively affect some children, is this universally the case? Can we prove such screen time causes these problems? Could it be that some of the social changes observed are simply changes? Neither good or bad?
It seems possible. In fact, some professionals note the benefits of screen time. These can include:
- Social bonding: If a child isn’t inclined to physical activities in the first place, then online gaming and other screen activities provide opportunities to find like-minded friends.
- New ways to communicate: Families can now stay in touch over long distances like never before. Plus, if a child isn’t able to travel, they can still connect with family and friends.
- Educational opportunities: Children who may not function well in a school environment may find other educational opportunities through modern technology.
Just like Mr. Rogers took advantage of television decades ago to create a program to help children face life’s problems and process their emotions, so new technology can present similar opportunities.
Nothing Short of a Lifestyle Change
Sometimes people will blame unrestricted screen time for various issues as a way of avoiding addressing deeper problems. For example, a parent who struggles to help their child grow emotionally mature may blame screen use for their child’s emotional problems. After all, less screen time cannot replace a safe, nurturing environment, trust, routine, structure, or good sleep.
With that in mind, consider these tips to help with your and your child’s screen use:
- Don’t use screens during a meal.
- Discourage screen use in the car.
- Plan family fun nights.
- Learn to accept boredom or less stimulating activities. Learning to accept fewer stimuli can lead to finding more enjoyment in activities like reading, playing games, exploring, etc.
- Don’t resort to handing your child a screen when they want to play with you.
- Model good screen habits.
Master of Divinity| Westminster Theological Seminary
Bachelor’s of Social Work, Bachelor of Science, Bible | Cairn University