It has been 2 years since we last wrote about the potential risks to children and adolescents of spending too much time on screens. While there have been studies in the interval that offer us more information about the effects of heavy screen use and the developing brain, there is little certainty about what is optimal for children and adolescents, and less still on how parents might effectively equip their children to make good use of screens without suffering ill effects.
You might recall that back in October of 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published screen time guidelines: recommending no screen time for infants and children up to 18 months old, limiting all screen time to 1 hour per day for children up to 5 years old, and 2 hours daily for older children (up to 11 years old), so that it would not interfere with homework, social time, exercise, and sleep. At the time, data suggested that children from 2 to 11 years old were spending an average of 4.5 hours per day on screens (TV, computer, tablets, or smartphones, not counting homework).
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study began in September 2016 to evaluate the effects of Canadian recommendations for 8- to 11-year-olds (9-11 hours sleep nightly, 1 hour of exercise daily, and 2 hours or less of screen time daily; the study subjects are in the United States). This fall they published their initial results, demonstrating that only 51% get the recommended amount of sleep, only 37% kept their daily screen time to under 2 hours, and only 18% were getting the recommended amount of exercise. Only 5% of children consistently met all three recommendations while 29% of children didn’t meet any of the recommendations.
The researchers assessed the children’s cognitive development and found that after 1 year, those children who met the screen time recommendations, both screen time and sleep, or all three recommendations demonstrated “superior global cognition.” Children were spending an average of 3.7 hours daily on screens, and those children who were spending 2 hours or less on screens performed 4% better on tests of cognitive function than did children spending the average amount of time. Sleep and exercise differences alone did not contribute to significant differences in cognitive function. This study will continue for another 10 years.1
In a much smaller study out of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, researchers asked parents to describe the amount of time a child spent on reading and in screen-based media activities, then completed MRI scans of the children’s brains.2 They found a strong association between reading time and higher functional connectivity between the parts of the brain responsible for visual word formation and those responsible for language and cognitive control, with a negative correlation between functional connectivity and time spent in screen-based media activities.
While these studies are important pieces of data as we build a deeper understanding about the effects of screen-based media use on children’s cognitive and behavioral development, they do not offer certainty about causality. These studies do not yet clarify whether certain children are especially vulnerable to the untoward effects of heavy screen-based media use. Perhaps the research will someday offer guidelines with certainty, but families need guidance now. Without doubt, digital devices are here to stay, are important to homework, and can facilitate independence, long-distance connections, important technical work-skills, and even senseless fun and relaxation. So we will focus on offering some principles to help you guide young people (or their parents) in approaching screen time thoughtfully.
While recommending no more than 2 hours of daily screen time seems reasonable, it may be more useful to focus on what young people are doing with the rest of their time. Are they getting adequate, restful sleep? Are they able to exercise most days? Do they have enough time for homework? Do they have time for friends (time actually together, not just texting)? What about time for hobbies? When parents focus on the precious resource of time and all of the activities their children both need and want to do, it sets the frame for them to say that their children are allowed to have time to relax with screen-based media as long as it does not take away from these other priorities. Ensuring that the child has at least 8 hours of sleep, after homework and sports, also will set natural limits on screen time.
Parents also can use the frame of development to guide their rules about screen time. If use of an electronic device serves a developmental task, then it is reasonable. If it interferes with a developmental task, then it should be limited. Adolescents (ages 12-20) should be exploring their own identities, establishing independence, deepening social relationships, and learning to manage their impulses. Some interests can be most easily explored with the aid of a computer (such as with programming, art history, or astronomy). Use of cellphones can facilitate teenagers’ being more independent with plans or transportation. Social connections can be supported by texting or FaceTime. Some close friends may be in a different sport or live far away, and it is possible to stay connected only virtually. However, when use of electronic devices keeps the child from engaging with new friends and new interests or from getting into the world to establish real independence (i.e., a job), then there should be limits. In all of these cases, it is critical that adults explain to teenagers what is guiding their thinking about limits on screen time. Open discussions about the great utility and fun that screens can provide, as well as the challenge of keeping those activities in balance with other important activities, helps adolescents set the frame for that rapidly approaching time when they will be making those choices without adult supervision.
Younger children (ages 8-11) should be sampling a wide array of activities and interests and experiencing challenges and eventual mastery across domains. Video games can be very compelling for this age group because they appeal to exactly this drive to master a challenge. Parents want to ensure that their children can have senseless fun, and still have enough time to explore actual activities: social, athletic, creative, and academic. They can be ready to explain the why of rules, but consistent rules, enforced for everyone at home, are most helpful for this age group.
You also can help parents to consider the child’s temperament when thinking about which rules will be appropriate. Anxious children and teenagers may be especially prone to immersive virtual activities that allow them to avoid the stress of real undertakings or interactions. But anxious children may be able to prepare for something anxiety provoking by exploring it virtually first. Youth with ADHD are going to struggle with shifting away from video games or other electronic activities they enjoy that don’t have a natural ending, and will need strict rules and patient support around balanced screen time use. Screen time may play to a child’s strengths, enabling creative children to take in a wide range of art or music and even create their own when other resources are limited.
Finally, all parents should consider what their own screen use is teaching their children. Adolescents are unlikely to listen to their parents’ recommendations if the parents spend hours online after work. Younger children need their parents’ engaged attention: being coaches and cheerleaders for all of their efforts at mastery. You can help parents to imagine rules that the whole family can follow. They can consider how screen time helps them connect with their children, such as watching a favorite program or sport together. They can explore shared interests online together. They can even relax with ridiculous cat videos together! Screen time together is valuable if it supports parents’ connections with their children, while their rules ensure adequate time for sleep, physical activity, and developmental priorities.
Dr. Swick is physician in chief at Ohana, Center for Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health, Community Hospital of the Monterey (Calif.) Peninsula. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at