It’s perhaps one of the biggest parenting faux pas of the 21st century: letting any of our ubiquitous screens act as babysitter. But new research out of Oxford, Cardiff and Cambridge Universities finds that screen time in moderation actually seems to have a positive effect on kids.
The researchers found that children who spend one to two hours daily watching television or using digital devices had higher levels of social and emotional well-being versus those who reported no screen time.
“In light of our findings, calls for blanket technology bans and age restrictions on technology access do not constitute evidence-based or indeed ethical advice, particularly as screen usage in some cases has a net positive impact,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, in a release.
The research is based on survey data from questionnaires filled out by the caregivers of over 35,000 American children about their screen time and observable psychosocial functioning.
Some interesting data points include:
- On average children spend one hour and 41 minutes engaged in television-based activities such as gaming and viewing films;
- On average, children spend one hour and 53 minutes engaged in device-based activities using tablets and smartphones;
- Children could watch over four hours of television-based activities before showing any signs of functioning difficulties;
- Children could engage in over five hours of device-based activities before exhibiting significant functioning difficulties.
It’s worth noting here that all this data is based on the subjective reporting of the caregivers that were surveyed, which could be prone to considerable biases given the close relationships between caregiver and child.
“We urge others to build on our findings which show the possible influence of digital screen engagement is likely to be smaller and more nuanced that many might first expect,” said Dr. Amy Orben, a college research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
However, it is more important how we are utilizing those screen times and guide them in an effective way to channel screen as an educational source. What’s more, with pandemics, we had no choice but to let them sit in front of the screen.
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Still, this surprising finding, even if preliminary, challenges the popular narrative that screen time is zombie-fying our kids. Could it be the case that society has shifted in recent decades enough that functioning in society may actually require a certain amount of screen time? Or was it just never really a big problem in the first place?
“Very few children, if any, routinely use television and device-based screens enough, on average, to show significantly lower levels of psychological functioning,” Przybylski says. “Instead these findings indicate that other aspects of digital engagement, including what is on screens and how caregivers moderate their use, are far more important.”