screen time

A Better Way to Think About Young Kids and Screen Time

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

A yearslong study of more than 7,000 parent-child pairs in Japan, published in JAMA Pediatrics, has produced some alarming headlines. In the New York Times: “More Screen Time Linked to Delayed Development in Babies, Study Finds.” At CNN: “Screen Time Linked With Developmental Delays in Toddlerhood, Study Finds.” The Hill warns, “Study Links Early-Life Screen Time With Developmental Delays.”

The study in question does indeed link screen time with developmental delays, albeit in the weak, correlative sense of the word. The study — which relied on parental surveys about screen usage and subsequent questionnaires about children’s communication, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and personal and social skills — found a “dose-response association between longer screen time at age 1 year and developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4 years.” In particular, the study said, “more than 4 hours of screen time per day was associated with developmental delays in communication and problem-solving across ages 2 and 4 years.”

The associations weren’t uniform across domains — increases in early screen time didn’t seem to be correlated with changes to personal or social skills by age 4 — and the surveys did not take into account what the children were watching, only asking parents how many hours they allow their kids to “watch TV, DVDs, video games, internet games (including mobile phones and tablets), etc?” Still, the news doesn’t sound great, particularly if you’re a guilt-ridden parent with young children in need of occasional, or maybe frequent, tablet pacification: Extended early screen time seems like it may knock kids off track with consequences evident years later.

On the one hand, this is intuitive to anyone who has witnessed the way a child’s roving gaze seems to magnetically snap to any screen in the vicinity; it’s obvious enough to any adult who wishes they themselves spent less time scrolling. Childhood screen time, as a subject of debate and worry, is perfectly located at the nexus of parental guilt and personal screen-use anxiety. The usefulness of a portable screen for getting through a long flight, busy day, work conflict, or exhaustion makes screens — a TV, tablet, your phone, whatever — a potent symbol of personal failure. Lots of parents say they wish they spent less of their own time looking at screens. The least they can do is prevent their kids from falling into the same zombie habits, right?

This study, like many of those it cites and builds on, doesn’t go so far. For one, it doesn’t distinguish between “educational screen time” and “other types of screen time” and grants that “it may have an educational aspect depending on the programs watched on electronic devices,” citing a meta-analysis of studies on that subject. The most worrying outcomes — issues with communication and problem-solving skills that lingered at age 4 — were described in 1-year-olds who spent more than four hours a day with screens, a group that accounted for just 4.1 percent of respondents.

The most important caveat, however, involves the parents’ personal and material situations: “Mothers of children with high levels of screen time were characterized as being younger, having never given birth, and having a lower household income, lower maternal education level, and having postpartum depression” — parents, in other words, most in need of help and with generally less undivided attention (the ideal, enriching, and implied alternative to screen time) to give to their children. Parents who, presented with the eventual results of the study in which they participated, would be least able and likely to do anything about them. It would be fair and accurate to headline the researchers’ findings in a fairly different way: “Study Finds Developmental Delays in Young Children of Struggling Parents.”

If screen time is directly responsible for developmental delays — something the study does not claim — and the imperative is to reduce it, one arrives quickly at political questions that are much older and bigger than the technological trends of the moment: Is excess screen time the result of parents failing their children? Sometimes, sure. Or is it a symptom of a society that’s failing its parents? Somewhat, at the very least.

It’s worth considering that familiar renditions of the “screen time” conversation have been happening in regard to movies, TV, games, and computers for about 70 years, never entirely without merit but persistently lacking in much explanatory value and invariably tied up in transient generational grudges and pop-theorizing about kids these days. The current iteration of this discourse, which corresponded approximately with the rise of the smartphone and the arrival of cheap tablets, is more than a decade old and has produced, mostly, a sense of ambient parental shame.

The Wall Street Journal’s “Family & Tech” columnist, Julie Jargon, wrote earlier this year that she would no longer write about kids and screen time, citing both the obviousness of the issue — of course it would be better for kids to spend time interacting richly with other people rather than watching YouTube toy-unboxing videos — as well as its limited use as a way to understand what kids’ lives are actually like:

Researchers from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found no relationship between the amount of time 4- and 5-year-old children spend on mobile devices and their language development — when also taking into account household income, parent education and reading in the home. 

Whether it’s with a television, tablet or phone, no singular aspect of screen use is going to ruin your child’s development — just like eating a candy bar from time to time likely won’t derail your health. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, we’ve come to realize the impacts screens have on kids are nuanced and individualized. When I asked researchers involved in some of the studies above what comes next, they said they want to probe deeper into what’s going on in kids’ homes.

Screens, it turns out, are a proxy for family dynamics.

And as the more recent JAMA study hints, “family dynamics” are often a proxy themselves — for income, for local and institutional support, and for the work-life expectations of a given economy. Understood as an underlying condition, excessive screen time will only continue to vex parents, not to mention plenty of other people with common TV and smartphone habits. Understood as a symptom, it tells a story that’s distressing but at least theoretically addressable: If you want parents to pay more attention to their kids, help them out a little.

A Better Way to Think About Young Kids and Screen Time