Looking at the research on screen time

Courtney Nugent and Lauren Supplee from Child Trends have released a research brief on five ways screen time can benefit children and families. The brief looks at guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and links to multiple sources of research on the topic, such as journal articles in the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction and Infant and Child Development.

The five recommendations are as follows:

  • Certain kinds of digital tools can support family interactions. For example, using video chat (Skype, Facetime, etc) allows family members to connect with one another when in-person interactions may not be possible.
  • It’s important to support children’s healthy development through co-viewing and co-playing. For example, it is important that parents answer and ask questions about the material they are co-viewing, point out important concepts and blend the content they are viewing together into their daily lives and routines.
  • Parents can choose high-quality digital content for their child’s viewing. The brief notes that websites like Common Sense Media, PBS Kids and Sesame Workshop can help parents decide which apps and programs are best for their children.
  • Like physical tools, digital tools can promote school readiness. According to the brief, research suggests that preschool children can learn best from well-designed e-books with limited distracting features (such as games and sounds) and when parents’ questions focus on the stories themselves rather than the features of the electronic medium (such as pushing buttons).
  • Digital tools can support parent and child togetherness. For example, technology can elicit exciting topics for conversation and encourage family members to spend time with one another.

Source: 5 ways screen time can benefit children and families (March 2018), Child Trends

What is the research on screen time for children?

There continue to be conflicting views about the recommendations to give to children on screen time (the use of “screen” media including television, smart phones and computer games). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended two hours or less screen time per day for most children. Two recently published studies investigate this recommendation and whether the amount of screen time has any impact on children’s behaviour and school readiness.

The first study, published  in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, examines whether screen time that exceeds the AAP recommendations affects children’s school readiness, and specifically whether this varies according to family income.

Andrew Ribner and colleagues looked at data from 807 kindergarten (Year 1) children of diverse backgrounds. Their parents reported family income, as well as the number of hours of television their children watch on a daily basis. Video game, tablet and smartphone use were not included. The children were assessed using measures of maths, knowledge of letters and words and executive function. Results showed that watching more television than recommended by the AAP is negatively associated with maths and executive function, but not with letter and word knowledge. This association was found to increase as family income decreased.

For older children, screen time may not be strongly associated with any behaviour problems. Research published in Psychiatric Quarterly investigated the links between the amount of screen time and risky behavioural outcomes for 6,089 young people aged 12–18 from Florida.

The sample was divided into four groups: abstainers (those who reported spending no time watching television or using other media); low users (no more than two hours of screen time per day, in line with AAP guidance); moderate users (three to six hours per day); and excessive users (six or more hours per day). Christopher J Fergusson, who conducted the study, found that moderate screen use was not associated with any risky behaviour. Even excessive screen use was only weakly associated with negative outcomes related to delinquency, reduced grades and depression only and at levels unlikely to be significant.

Source: Family socioeconomic status moderates associations between television viewing and school readiness skills (April 2017), Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics (38:3)

Everything in moderation: moderate use of screens unassociated with child behavior problems (February 2017), Psychiatric Quarterly.

FITKids programme benefits body and mind

Results of a randomised study that compared pupils who attended FITKids (a daily after-school fitness programme) to those who did not showed benefits for the FITKids group in attention, memory, and task-switching.

The study involved 221 eight- to nine-year olds matched by age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and aerobic fitness during the school years 2009-2013. The experimental groups participated in the FITKids programme for two hours a day after school for nine months. Each day they spent 30 minutes at activity stations, followed by a rest/education period then about 45 minutes of organised games. The control groups were put on a waiting list for the FITKids programme.

All groups were pre- and post-tested on fitness and cognitive measures. Both groups demonstrated post-test gains in aerobic fitness, but these were significant only in the experimental group. The experimental group demonstrated twice the accuracy in cognitive tasks at post-test compared with the control group.

The authors concluded that a daily after-school fitness programme improves brain health. They warned that policies that seek to increase academic achievement by replacing physical education and break times with academic classes may inadvertently do more harm than good.

Source: Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function (2014), Pediatrics 134(4)