tech time

Guest Post: What is the Real Impact of Screen Time?

As a parent, I often find myself consumed with worry over the amount of time my eldest son, Oliver, 11, spends on tech. It’s an on-going battle for us here and whilst Oliver is an academic, sporty and arty child, he like his peers, does rely heavily on his phone and laptop for entertainment. 

child with a phone

Thankfully, help is at hand from authors Edward Watson and Bradley Busch.

Edward Watson is the director of InnerDrive (who offer research-based, practical and interactive student workshops and CPD courses, online and in schools) and co-author of, ‘A Parent’s Guide to The Science of Learning’.

His co-author, Bradley Busch, is a psychologist at InnerDrive. Together, they specialise in helping translate psychological research in an accessible and helpful way. They are also both tired parents trying to do the best they can.

Below these parenting experts share their thoughts on the real impact of screen time and how much is too much, providing useful insight for us all. 

For better or worse, our parenting style is heavily influenced by how our parents raised us. They provide a template and a model from which we can choose to follow or diverge from. Unfortunately, modern day parenting has presented a set of problems that our parents never had to encounter. This means, for example, when it comes to managing our child’s screen time, we are left alone with nothing but our best guesses to guide us. That is, until now.

Researchers from around the world have been studying what the effect of screen time on our young children is, and specifically, how much is too much.

For example, one study divided participants into 2 groups. The first had their phones on the table during a meal, whereas the other half put their phones away. They found that those who had their phone on the table were more distracted, and they found their meal less enjoyable and had less interest in what the person sitting opposite to them was saying.

Excessive screen time has also been found to negatively impact the quantity and quality of sleep that our children get. Melatonin (the sleep hormone) gets released when it is dark. If your child is on their phone or tablet a lot in the evening, then essentially their brain is fooled into thinking the bright light means it is day time and stops melatonin being fully released, keeping them wide awake.

Another negative effect that screen time can have on children is on their diet. A study conducted in the UK found that those who spent excess time playing games, texting or watching videos were less likely to eat nutritious foods.

So how much screen time is too much?

Well, one study of over 40,000 children found that more hours of screen time were associated with lower well-being. High users of screen time (7+ hours a day) can often suffer from less curiosity, a lack of self-control, and emotional instability. Research shows that even moderate use of screens (4 hours a day) is associated with lower psychological well-being.

Other researchers have highlighted how even shorter screen time can still have a potentially negative impact, with one large scale study finding that students who spent more than 2 hours a day on TV or gaming, suffered a decline in academic achievement. Some researchers believe that watching TV or playing video games is taking over the time that would otherwise be used for physical activity or studying which can contribute to poor academic performance.

However, all is not lost, especially for our younger children. Research shows that the negative associations between screen time and academic performance are more significant for older students than for younger children. This may be because adolescents experience drops in psychological well-being more intensely, making the detrimental effects of screen time on their schoolwork even greater. It is also possibly caused by the different levels of access that these age groups have to screens. Therefore for parents of children under the age of 12, it is important to know that they are entering a key time in their relationship with screens and electronic devices.

One simple way that parents can help is to help ensure there is a, ‘no electronics at dinner time’ rule. A recent survey found that 64 per cent of young people say that the TV is usually on during meals.

When possible, sit together for family meals with no distractions. Children learn from the behaviours they see in their parents, and so, if you put your phone away, they are likely to do the same.

Overall, it is really hard to put a clean definitive answer on, ‘how much screen time is too much’. This is because it depends on the opportunity-cost involved. If used as part of a balanced lifestyle, then it probably isn’t something to worry too much about. However, if the screen time is excessive, then it can stop young children doing the sort of activities that they would otherwise enjoy, learn from or be physically active doing. This can result in worse mood, reduced motivation and well-being.

When it comes to making that judgement call on how much you want your child to be on their electronic devices, we don’t have the safety net of defaulting to how our parents dealt with this issue. Perhaps psychological research can instead help fill that void. Below are some tips. 

Set expectations – create a culture where not going online is the norm. This means having clear rules and guidelines and sticking to them.

Be the change yourself – many children complain that their parents are on their phones too much. They often learn this behaviour from us. So actively try to reduce your own screen time.

Provide alternatives – it is not enough to say, ‘don’t be online’, instead we have to offer alternatives that they can do either by themselves or with you.

Don’t let them sleep with tech– this should be non-negotiable: phones should not be left overnight in the bedroom.

For more advice and detailed studies to help you parent, check out A Parent’s Guide to The Science of Learning: 77 Studies That Every Parent Needs to Know by Bradley Busch and Edward Watson which is out in paperback on 8 September 2021, published by Routledge, David Fulton.

*A Parent’s Guide to The Science of Learning

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