Screen-Time Restrictions Might Not Mean All That Much

There are a lot of numbers you have to keep in mind when you're raising a kid: Their height and weight. How many millilitres of milk they're drinking, at first, and then how many fruits and veggies they're eating, how much outdoor play they're getting, and of course, how many minutes a day they spend glued to a device.

Photo: Zach Frailey

In 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on screen time, recommending that parents of kids aged two to five limit screen time to an hour a day of "high quality" shows such as Sesame Street, and that they set "consistent limits" for older children. They also made a point of noting that screen time should not take the place of sleep, play or other enriching activities.

But now a team of researchers in the UK have conducted a study on those recommendations and found that those limits might not matter all that much. The researchers conducted phone interviews with nearly 20,000 parents and assessed children's "psychological well-being in terms of caregiver attachment, resilience, curiosity, and positive affect in the past month".

After controlling for ethnicity, age, sex, income and the education of the caregiver, the researchers found that there was no evidence to support the hard one-hour-per-day limit. The lead author on the study, Dr Andrew Pryzbylski, said in a press release: "Taken together, our findings suggest that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children's psychological wellbeing."

Does this mean that parents should feel free to let their kids watch 12 hours of Paw Patrol a day? I doubt it. As much as it would be nice to plug numbers into an algorithm and have it spit out a perfect kid, I suspect that good parenting is a lot more nuanced than that. Everyone knows the fanatical parents who forbid all sweets, but merely restricting sugar doesn't guarantee good health - there are a million other factors at play. Does the child also eat a lot of veggies? Is baking a fun and educational activity with mum and dad? Is the family's food culture social, experimental and instructive? All of these things matter more than the solitary metric of grams of sugar per day.

I'm guessing the same goes for the "screen culture" in our households. Dr Pryzbylski notes that "our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they're actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time".

In other words, are you using the iPad to identify birds with your kids? Using the computer to code with them? Looking up poems, watching good movies, learning the proper knife technique for chopping carrots? Digital time can be instructive and social; Dr Pryzbylski notes that "future research should focus on how using digital devices with parents or caregivers and turning it into a social time can affect children's psychological wellbeing, curiosity, and the bonds with the caregiver involved".

And lest you think this sounds holier than thou - I use the iPad as a babysitter too. Every day, I need about 20 minutes to rest before I make dinner, and a TV show buys me that time. Without the screen time, I'd be irritable during the meal - which benefits exactly no one. So, in my opinion - and this is borne out by research - it's totally OK that the break was brought to me by Sesame Street.

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