Educational apps, math games and the pros and cons of screen time for ages 6–11
The experts have weighed in. Screen time is good. Screen time is bad. Screen time may contribute to depression. Screen time can boost academic performance. Different studies tell different stories. It’s not that the medical community disagrees. It’s simply that what falls under the umbrella of “screen time” is incredibly broad. Watching TV isn’t the same as scrolling through a phone, which isn’t the same as playing a game on a tablet.
To answer the question, “is screen time bad for kids,” you have to ask a few more:
- How old is your child?
- What’s on their screen?
- How long are they looking at it?
Why screen time can be bad for children
First let’s take a look at what the majority of studies agree upon: Excessive screen time has the potential to negatively affect children and teenagers.
- Too much screen time for children under five harms children’s development
- Children under 3 may experience life-long issues if they have too much screen time
- Blue light that comes from LED screens (and naturally from the sun) may harm the retina and disrupt the sleep cycle
- Excessive screen time can impair social skills like making friends
- Screen time before bed can lead to sleep disturbances and may contribute to depression in teens
You may also read about the “displacement hypothesis,” the concept that screen time is bad because it keeps children from doing other activities like playing outdoors, learning an instrument or socializing. On a similar note, a second rather intuitive side effect of too much screen time is obesity.
Too much screen time affects toddlers, kids and teenagers differently
Scientists are continuing to churn out studies on screen time. The vast majority agree on one finding: Age is a key determinant in how good or bad screen time is. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, our brains go through multiple stages of development. In the first phase, when infants and toddlers are learning how to interact with their environment, screen time can have long-lasting negative effects. This is the time our brains build a foundation for all behavior that follows.
Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow
of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, notes that screen time “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary – all those abilities are harmed.”
The same science applies to children from toddlers to five-year-olds. Think of it this way, when you read a story to your children, they interpret your words, turn them into images and exert focus to keep up with the storyline. If they see a story on a tablet, their imagination doesn’t do any work like dreaming up imagery and they have no need to pay attention. This model is based on instant gratification rather than learning, which may set a terrible precedent for the years that follow.
One of the largest, recent and most popular screen time studies, “The Association Between Screen Media Use and Academic Performance Among Children and Adolescents,” is a composite of 5,559 studies published between 1958 and 2018 from 23 countries. It took computer, internet, mobile phone, television, video game and overall screen media use into account. Here are the study’s findings:
- Teenagers and children who excessively play video games and watch TV are more likely to have poor academic performance.
- However, outside of TV and video games, there was no correlation between screen time and academic performance.
- Damage from TV and video games is worse for adolescents than children.
- Video games only showed poorer academic performance in adolescents, not children.
If these results make you think that perhaps it’s not the screen – but rather what’s on it – that matters, you’re not alone.
Enter the Goldilocks study
It turns out when you get the age, hours spent and content juuust right, screen time can have a positive impact on youth. At least that’s what the “Goldilocks hypothesis” says. In “A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the Relations Between Digital-Screen Use and the Mental Well Being of Adolescents,” Andrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein argue this “just-right” view of screen time is more apt than the displacement hypothesis that essentially argues screen time is negative because it replaces activities like outdoor time. To test the Goldilocks hypothesis, Przybylski and Weinstein studied 120,000 adolescents.
Here are the results:
- A “moderate” amount of screen time can improve adolescents’ well-being.
- No or very little screen time was actually linked to lower levels of well-being.
- More than 2 hours of screen time on weekdays was also linked to lower levels of well-being.
- Still, the negative effects of screen time were minimal. Skipping breakfast or not getting enough sleep both are significantly worse for adolescents.
Positive screen time: Educational entertainment, math games and apps
Remember, all screen time is not created equal. That’s what makes studying its effects so difficult. We often talk about studies that seem to prove TV is bad in the same breath as studies that seem to prove math games boost academic performance. Let’s take a look at some studies with a more focused approach than studying any media on any screen.
Computers vs. video games
A study of 11,000 seven-year-olds found that children who watched 3+ hours of TV at age 5 showed a slight increase in behavioral problems at age 7. However, those who played computer games did not show any new behavior problems.
iPads + books = the perfect way to read
Another study showed that kids who learn to read using both iPads and books are likely to be more engaged, less shy in class and more cooperative. In addition, children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to perform at or above grade level if they learn on both iPads and books at home.
No screen time leads to poor performance in college
A Swiss study of 11,000 American freshmen found that surprisingly, students whose parents had drastically limited their screen time before college (a la Steve Jobs and other leaders in tech) perform worse when they arrive.
Performance metrics in e-learning games
We already think teachers have superpowers – but all-knowing analytics are another story. Computers process information faster than we do, so they can identify weaknesses and strengths specific to each student in seconds. When Colorado Technical University employed an adaptive learning platform with these capabilities, one course’s pass rate increased by 27 percent and the class average increased by 10 percent.
The studies go on: Children with disabilities are likely to learn better when they also play math or reading games, educational entertainment can improve working memory in children, math games improve problem-solving capabilities outside of the classroom and so on.
Good screen time comes down to content and moderation
So when is screen time good for kids? While there is research suggesting that video games and TV are harmful, there is no evidence that computer games, educational entertainment and other elements of screen time like Skyping Grandma are harmful.
Pete Etchells, who studies how video games affect behavior, talks about the problems with one-size-fits all screen time studies: “Screen time is a really enticing measure because it’s simple – it’s usually described as the number of hours a day using screen-based technology. But it’s completely meaningless…It doesn’t say anything about what you’re using that time for.”
Ensure screen time has a net-positive effect
Choose educational entertainment over TV binges
Is your kid plopped on the couch watching Lost in Space, or is she playing The Mathstronaut, an iOS app that teaches improves mental math skills for first through fifth graders?
Balance with other activities
Like most things, there can be too much of a good thing. Even screen time that benefits children should be balanced with social interaction and physical activity. The popular screens-cause-obesity argument only holds water if screen time affects exercise.
Remember, screen time can be social
Interactive game and group projects, from creating videos at-home experiments with technology, can help youth learn to communicate in efficient ways with new mediums. And don’t forget, you can get in on the fun! Screen time doesn’t have to mean alone time.
No screen time at bedtime
We know that blue light before bed may disrupt normal sleep patterns, so stick to storytime before bed.
All in all, feel free to kill your television, but let the good screens live.