What the Research Says

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Studies about the effects of screen time and technology use on children are ongoing, and the current research can help us to strengthen our teaching practice. These curated excerpts from a handful of recent books and studies give you a snapshot of some of interesting recent research.

A 2014 study of caregiver cell phone use found that caregivers’ primary engagement was with the device, not the child:

“Many caregivers used the device almost continuously throughout the meal, eating and talking while looking at the device or only putting it down briefly to engage in other activities . . . caregivers absorbed in devices frequently ignored the child’s behavior for a while and then reacted with a scolding tone of voice, gave repeated instructions in a somewhat robotic manner (eg, without looking at the child or relevant to child behavior), seemed insensitive to the child’s expressed needs, or used physical responses (eg, one female adult kicked a child’s foot under the table; another female caregiver pushed a young boy’s hands away when he was trying to repeatedly lift her face up from looking at a tablet screen).” (Radesky et al., 2014, pp. e846–e847)

A 2016 book connects technology use to low levels of empathy in young people:

“We see a measurable dip in empathy among today’s youth. Our first clue that all these selfies (and the me-centered culture that they represent) are doing irreparable harm to today’s young people is the rise in narcissism among college-age students. Narcissists are interested only in getting what they can for themselves. ‘If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.’ ‘I always know what I am doing.’ ‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve.’ The self-admiration craze wouldn’t be as worrisome if a focus on others was increasing at the same time, but that isn’t happening. Teens are now 40 percent lower in empathy levels than three decades ago, and in the same period, narcissism has increased 58 percent.” (Borba, 2016, p. vx)

“The single best predictor of healthy emotional interactions is a lot of face-to-face communication; it’s also the best way to learn emotions and develop human-contact skills. Staring at computer screens, texting, tweeting, and IMing do not teach kids their Emotion ABCs. The average eight-to-eighteen-year-old is plugged in to a digital media device about seven hours and 38 minutes a day (that doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones.” (Borba, 2016, p. 8)

A 2018 study of screen time and psychological well-being measures for 40,000 children between the ages of 2 and 17 found connections between higher screen time and lower well-being:

“Children and adolescents who spent more time using screen media were lower in psychological well-being than low users. High users of screens were significantly more likely to display poor emotion regulation (not staying calm, arguing too much, being difficult to get along with), an inability to finish tasks, lower curiosity, and more difficulty making friends. Among adolescents, high (vs. low) users were also twice as likely to have received diagnoses of depression or anxiety or needed treatment for mental or behavioral health conditions. Moderate users were also significantly more likely than low users of screens to be low in well-being and, among 14- to 17-year-olds, to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety or need mental health treatment. Non-users generally did not significantly differ in well-being from low users of screens.” (Twenge & Campbell, 2018, pp. 279–280)

A 2019 study investigated whether higher screen time affects performance on developmental screening tests and whether children with lower scores on those tests received more screen time:

“What comes first: delays in development or excessive screen time viewing? One of the novelties of the current longitudinal, 3-wave study is that it can address this question using repeated measures. Results suggest that screen time is likely the initial factor: greater screen time at 24 months was associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months, and similarly, greater screen time at 36 months was associated with lower scores on developmental screening tests at 60 months. The obverse association was not observed.” (Madigan et al., 2019, p. 248)

Screen time averages for children in 2020, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

On average, children ages 8–12 in the United States spend 4–6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours. (AACAP, 2020)

A 2021 review of current evidence around excessive screen time and mental health in the COVID-19 pandemic proposes immediate strategies for digital health:

“Despite the potential adverse effects of screen time on health, it is impossible to abstain from screen time in modern times. Oftentimes, the most successful tactics to minimize technology harm are not technical at all, but behavioral such as self-imposed limitations on use of digital platforms, using non-digital means when possible and using digital platforms for better health and well-being.” (Pandya & Lodha, 2021, para. 21)