How Much Screen Time is Too Much for Kids?

How important is it to separate kids from electronic devices? The Oklahoma state Senate and House recently passed a bill that would prevent licensed day care centers in the state from giving kids under the age of two any screen time. Critics will no doubt say that this measure seems draconian. What’s the harm in a moderate amount of time spent watching some cartoons? Maybe there’s even something educational to be found on the tablets. And many experts back them up.

When parents ask psychology professor and Wall Street Journal contributor Alison Gopnik about the effect technology is having on their kids, she tells them: “We won’t know for sure until we do careful, rigorous, long-term research. But the evidence that we already have, as opposed to anecdote and speculation, is reassuring.” Well, she’s right about the first part. We don’t have good long-term research. But she’s wrong about her conclusion: The research that we do have is not reassuring at all.

On the most extreme end, one of the pediatricians involved with forming the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for children and screen time told me that slightly less than 1% of teens have an actual “addiction” to screens. That means that at any reasonably large high school there will be a few kids who cannot function because of their screen addictions. By way of comparison, a little more than 2% of kids aged 12-20 have an alcohol addiction. Think about how much energy we expend worrying about drinking, and there at least we have the law and other parents on our sides.

But other studies suggest that there are plenty of problems created by screen time that fall short of addiction. Screens generally make kids more sedentary and are linked to obesity. Kids whose screens are not taken away from them at night often experience sleep deprivation. Screen time leads to higher levels of anxiety and depression. And perhaps most damning, studies generally find that technology doesn’t do much to aid kids in the classroom and can even be problematic for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But the new study Gopnik cites approvingly suggests that teens can spend a lot of time on screens without having it significantly affect their mental well-being. She writes, “After controlling for factors like gender, ethnicity and class, [researchers] found a Goldilocks effect. Up to a certain point screen time either positively correlated with mental well-being or showed no relationship to it.”

So where was the tipping point? “The acceptable amount was fairly substantial—about 1½ to two hours a day of smartphone and computer use and three to four hours a day of videogames and entertainment. The teenagers often reported doing several of these things at once.” That amount does seem substantial, except when you consider that the average American teen is on a device a lot more than that. According to Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of 2 hours and 42 minutes per day on their phones. Among teens who actually use smartphones (there are apparently a few kids left without them) the average is 4 hours and 38 minutes. Teens spent a total of 6 hours and 40 minutes per day on screens.

As well, the Common Sense Media report notes, “While almost all (94 percent) teens use screen media on a typical day, 16 percent use them for two hours or less and 26 percent for more than eight hours.” Gopnik and a lot of other parenting experts may want to reassure their audiences that there is little cause for concern, but they are wrong. It’s not crying wolf to say that many, many American parents should be downright alarmed.

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