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Expert Alert: Screen Time and Kids

June 9, 2020

Aaron R. Boyson, associate professor in the Department of Communication, talks about the reality that no human population has ever spent this much time with screens... and what it means for kids.


Is there any distinction between positive screen time and negative screen time? Thinking about the shift to online learning, does it contribute to the harm of kids being online too much?

Yes, but this is tricky because the most important thing to notice about screen time is the amount of it.  Data from research on representative samples of Americans by Common Sense Media (research available at suggest that a typical young adult will die having spent roughly one third of her or his life with the mass media in general, most of it on screens.  One estimate, by Michael Bugeja at Iowa State University (see, Interpersonal Divide in the Digital Age), suggests that on average roughly 70% of our time waking time is spent staring at a screen.  Digital life is a reallocation of attention for most people.  Screen attention already was a powerful commodity in the television age, and it had won eyes and ears with little or no resistance.  If the pandemic works like previous shifts in media history, we likely will not see a return to whatever was “normal” screen media time before the COVID-19 sequester time.  Though I dislike the phrase right now, there likely will be a new normal whenever the pandemic is said to be over.  So for my money, any fruitful conversation about positive and negative screen time must begin with the simple but often overlooked fact that no human population has ever spent this much time with this much screen media.

We are the living participants in this new media experiment.  Even though data are colonizing modern life (see, The Cost of Connection, by Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias) the data that can speak to its positive and negative influence will take much more time to gather and interpret.  We don’t know what adaptation looks like yet, or how to tell the difference between adaptation and accommodation.  Think about the evolution of using a cell-phone while driving, for example, when trying to imagine adaptation and accommodation.  And that might be the easier of the challenges to spot and mitigate, and we have failed pretty miserably at the easier of them (see, “A Deadly Wandering, by Matt Ritchel for a great history of this story).  Both prudence and patience are warranted until we know more about the effects of digital living, not unlike how we wait for a vaccine for COVID-19.

With all that in mind, I like to think of media as the delivery systems we use for consuming information, and then to think about information as food. It’s not merely a metaphor.  Increasingly, and especially during a pandemic, information guides survival.  Like food, empirical research reveals that media use can also threaten survival.  Although it is less common to think of information as unhealthy for the body, the way we do food, more people are starting to see parallels between them.  Here are three research examples on which to chew. One line of research shows that writing affectionately reduces total cholesterol, even just for a few weeks, compared to writing without expressing affection.  Conversely, a fascinating epidemiological study coded the affect (or emotion) in Twitter postings from regions of the Northeast to predict heart disease mortality in that same area.  Remarkably, the authors found that negative Twitter posting was the largest and most robust predictor of death from heart disease, county by county.  The effect was stronger even than diet and exercise variables also measured - combined.  Finally, more than a decade ago researchers used a case-control design to test the relationship between television consumption and Alzheimer’s disease.  Using those already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and a matched group of study participants without Alzheimer’s Disease, they found that television consumption in midlife was a significant predictor of the disease diagnosis.  These are just a few studies pointing to the potential for information to alter not just on how we think and feel, but also to erode health.  Information consumption and production both impact the body – not the same as food, of course, but there is impact nonetheless.

Now having said all that, here are two distinctions that help.  The first is between active and passive consumption, and the second is between ritualistic and instrumental media use.  The brain burns glucose when it processes information, so it is useful to think about media consumption this way. Active consumption burns more glucose, requires more thinking, to put it simply. Not all screen-based media is the same in terms of its glucose production, and sadly there are not great data mapping it all out.  Right now, I’m staring at a screen. But I’m creating something, effortfully.  It’s more effortful than, say, when I watch The Office on Netflix.  But there is also a difference between watching Jeopardy on TV and The Office, especially if you are trying to guess the answers before the contestant does.  Video games tend to be more active than television, in terms of cognitive processing, but reading is the probably the most active.  Sadly, reading also tends to be the form of media that kids today spend the least time with, and by a lot, especially for pleasure.  People also read on a screen now, though not as well and for sure differently (see, The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr).  Still, one question to ask and/or to monitor among your children is to take stock of how active is the media time.  Shy away from thinking about screen time as a lump thing.  To be the most healthful, push toward reading, even on screens if it has to be, and to forms of engagement which invite participation from the consumer. It’s important to note a sobering statistic from Common Sense Media, who has great data tracking media use among representative samples of U.S. children.  Although web 2.0 promised all this great new capacity for creating and disseminating content, only about 4% of a child’s time with media is dedicated to creating.  Most of it, by far, for most kids, by far, is just consumption, and most of it, by far, still comes from traditional television.  YouTube time seems to be increasing fast, which from a sensory standpoint is just a different delivery mechanism for televisual content.

The second distinction is between ritualistic and instrumental use.  Instrumental use of media has an “offline” application, or in other words, is engaged in for some delayed gratification.  Say you watch a cooking show on PBS so you can try it for dinner.  That’s one type of instrumental use.  Or, maybe you learn to play a song on the piano by watching an instructional video on YouTube.  That too, is instrumental.  Ritualistic media use is the opposite.  The end is itself – engagement for engagement’s sake, or, entertainment for entertainment’s sake.  Research suggests it is healthful to encourage instrumental media use.  This has been a significant problem for people to negotiate since television became popular, however.  Many people today feel digital life encourages ritualistic use even when it starts out as instrumental.  This is why a web page on social media lacks a bottom.  It never was actually a page, of course, but we fit it into that existing schema and then features of it are disappeared.   One can scroll continuously in many applications now.  That feature, or some would call it an “affordance” encourages ritualistic use.  Some researchers now refer to this feature as a lack of a “stopping cue” and developers know it is a powerful way that instrumental use can become ritualistic even in the midst of an instrumental session.  In many ways the disappearance of stopping cues is the sine qua non of the digital age (see Adam Alter’s “Irresistible”).  An instrumental media user tends to say things like, “From 1 – 2 pm I’m going to play Minecraft, and then I’m going to do something else.”  The game starts at a mindful time and ends at a given time, even if it’s purely for entertainment.  That too is a form of instrumental media use, less healthful perhaps, but still instrumental.  On the other hand, ritualistic users of media tend to start media consumption indiscriminately and with no plan for stopping.  More and more, screen media lacks stopping cues and encourages ritualistic use, again, even when it starts as something else.  Who among us hasn’t felt this?  If you’ve ever opened up a browser and spent 20 minutes online and then forgotten what you went online to do, you’ve been snared by this property of the web today. 

What is a recommended amount of screen time for elementary-aged kids? High schoolers?

Aaron R. BoysonThe American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) probably has been the strongest voice on this issue, but recommendations have shifted for reasons which I fail to understand, nor do they seem to be guided by empirical research. For instance, the organization used to sponsor a public health campaign about how ages zero to three are critical years to get right from a developmental perspective.  Around that time, they recommended no screen time for children zero to 2 years old.  Already, those ages don’t line up, but there was at least a clear call for no screen time at certain ages. Now, the AAP has dialed that back to less than 2 hours per day for the youngest kids.  But this seems to be a capitulation to cultural norms and the pervasiveness of digital life more than anything else. In fact, they have stated as much when revising them.  Certain key cognitive skills critical for digital literacy don’t emerge in full until ages 8 or even 10 years old, but nobody I know recommends that amount of limiting.  Relaxing the guidelines on time spent is not to my knowledge based on research that suggests limiting screen exposure at those ages is somehow not warranted.  Indeed, it is.  Tweens (ages 8 – 12) and teens (13 -18) are the heaviest periods of screen media use in childhood.  Common Sense Media shows consistently finds that kids at these ages consume about 8 – 10 hours of media content per day, overall, NOT INCLUDING for work or for school.  That’s just the average child.  Roughly 2 in 10 children experience at least twice that amount on average – per day.  Even the average is far greater than the AAP recommends.  Research has not yet led to official or even smart, in my view, guidelines for screen time.  If your child is 13 and spends four hours a day with screen-based media for pleasure, he or she is probably less than the average.  Is that good?  I doubt it.  That’s almost a full-time job’s worth of screen-based media in a week.  So, while I cannot cite or even necessarily have a recommendation, for all but the most austere among us, less is more.  A lot less.

What's happening to kids' mental health when they're exposed to too much screen time?

This is an expansive question, too large to handle here.  As with any complex causal association, especially in the media effects realm, data can be found to pick and choose what answer you like.  Still, as the research mounts, there looks to be a (statistically) small, negative effect overall, which for some can be very powerful, even deadly.  We have all seen those stories on the news about social media and bullying and suicide.  While those cases deserve all the attention they get and more, I tend to focus more on general well-being and the displacement of interpersonal interaction from screen time, which seems to affect human functioning negatively, again, the way a poor diet affects energy and health.  Again, going back three decades now, the Kaiser Family Foundation and more recently Common Sense Media find in survey research that kids with the heaviest media exposure tend to be the least happy and well-adjusted in school.  Newer longitudinal research corroborates those claims. 

Do you have any tips for parents trying to cut back on the amount of time their kids are on electronic devices?

I specialize in one tip.  It’s an axiom: access = use.  I strongly encourage it.  Over time, however, I have noticed how difficult it is to follow.  I say this from experience both as a researcher and a parent of two teenagers (ages 17 and 16): The best way to curb screen media time is to limit access.  Take an ecological approach and inventory your child’s home environment.  How many devices are there?  If there is one for each person, and if they are mobile, I say, good luck.  Access is already problematic.  But that is pretty normal these days, if a cell phone counts as a screen – which of course it should.  Limiting the number and mobility of screens is the best way to control time.  In our house, we have one full bathroom, and it limits shower use like a champ, though at times three people are frustrated.  We live with it.  Have one computer, put it in a well-travelled room, make it a desktop that you can’t move.  Have one TV, put it in a common room where other things happen.  Put the game player on it if you have one, and share.  At times, people will be frustrated.  But that’s when other activities start to emerge.  If you do this when the children are younger, cognitive and physical habits will emerge that will become more robust as they age.  A word of caution to those who figure they can add devices and set rules and control them.  Seldom does that work. It’s almost comical, but tragic, how powerless to media temptations people really are, especially families.  The force is strong.  I can’t tell you how many parents I run into who have tried this, thinking it’s reasonable to have some media things, and then they’ll just limit by setting and keeping rules.  The rules are very hard to establish and the conflict between parent and child rises.  In my house that conflict has happened, and we delayed devices for a pretty long time.  Remember, access = use.  If you don’t want to use, don’t have access.  It’s just that simple.  Would that it were also just that easy.

What else would you like people to know?

Researchers Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi wrote an article on television addiction published in Scientific American magazine some years ago.  In it they have this marvelous quote: “Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the struggle for survival is how easily organisms can be harmed by that which they desire. The trout is caught by the fisherman’s lure, the mouse by cheese. But at least those creatures have the excuse that bait and cheese look like sustenance. Humans seldom have that consolation. The temptations that can disrupt their lives are often pure indulgences.”  Already this great quote is stale, though, isn’t it?  We all live in a confounding world in 2020 where digital life is enmeshed increasingly with the struggle for survival in a way that Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi didn’t even imagine in 2002.  One thing that has changed is that the temptations that disrupt our lives are far more closely connected to and often do resemble the pure indulgences of digital life.  I think we DO have that consolation now, but it’s a hollow one, because it just means that our new normal will be more media time and it will be harder to tell the bait and the cheese from sustenance.  We should all stay on alert about how to make this distinction.  It’s a long game, a steady struggle, one worth fighting, just like diet and exercise.  Again, no human population in the history of the planet has ever had to negotiate this much bait... in a media ecology that has lured us more completely into a digital way of life.