An article published by Time Magazine late last month titled “Too Much Screen Time Can Have Lasting Consequences for Young Children’s Brains,” has ignited a new debate in the parenting world. The article focused on a study published in the Journal for American Medical Association that linked lower cognitive development in children that used more screen time each day. However, before you throw away your child’s tablet, one psychologist wants parents to know that the media frenzy is misleading and inaccurate.
In the study, the researchers reviewed surveys from over 2,400 parents. Surveys looked at the number of hours of screen time children have per day. Then the surveyed reviewed that data against the development of the child.
The study tracked the children from ages 2-5 years old. Researchers collected the data at the beginning of the study and then at three and five years old.
Through the study, the authors concluded that screentime negatively impacts the development of children. Sheri Madigan, one of the authors, wrote, “The results show that there is a lasting influence of screen time, especially when children are two to five years old when their brains are undergoing a period of tremendous development.”
On face value without reading the full study, the argument against the use of screen time in young children seems compelling. However, a psychologist that has researched and studied screen use by children, Dr. Christopher Ferguson, pushed back on the assertation that screens negatively impact child development.
Dr. Ferguson has written extensively about the false perception that video game violence correlates with societal violence. He’s authored books and worked with government agencies regarding the topic of video game violence. He also has a keen interest in the use of screens in child development. He currently works as a Professor of Psychology at Stetson University in Florida.
In response to the Time Magazine article, Ferguson published an article on Psychology Today titled “False Links Between Screen Time and Cognitive Development.” After finding the piece, I reached out to him to clarify his position. Additionally, we talked about what science says about screen time.
According to Ferguson, the study featured in Time Magazine is deeply flawed in its execution. Also, the results obtained are so statistically small that in most contexts they would be deemed “statistically insignificant.”
In a phone interview, Dr. Ferguson explained that the development differences between children with and without screen time are so small that most parents would not notice the difference. He gave the example that if a child had 1000 words the child with less screen time may know three more words.
Additionally, he noted that the researcher obtained their data by surveys completed by mothers. Children were not reviewed clinically nor were any formal cognitive tests done. By not having a full cognitive assessment of the child, the study relies on the memory and words of the mother.
When studies rely solely on one person’s assessment, results are not always reliable. A mother’s feelings about screen time can also influence their memory. Without a clinical review of the child, there is no way to know if screen time affects development.
Another part of the study Dr. Ferguson found problematic was the content and quality of screen time was not included in the study. Researchers did not factor if children watched cartoons, played games, or using interactive learning apps. Without knowing the content the children viewed, the study only estimates the quantity of time and not the quality of the time used.As a result, Dr. Ferguson said the study doesn’t provide conclusive evidence that screen time impacts development. Science agrees with Ferguson on this topic. To date no data supports that screen time can negatively harm a child’s developing brain. All the data collected has come from studies which rely on parent-reported information.
Dr. Ferguson pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently lifted their recommended time limits of only 2 hours per day of screen time for children from five to age 18. The recommendations made by the AAP were developed in the 1990s when the primary source of screen time was from sitting in front of a television.
Dr. Ferguson likens the hysteria surrounding screen time to the resistance parents in the 1980s had to heavy metal music. During this time, parents wrongly believed heavy metal music made children violent, suicidal, and murderous. Today the focus of our fear is associated with screen time.
As technology changes many of us have a fear of society leaving us behind. As technology changes, we are forced to reset our beliefs and understandings about the world.
Children of the 1970s and 1980s raising children today grew up without high-speed internet and cell phones. Part of the resistance to screens can be linked to the view parents hold about their childhood.
If a parent believes their child should have a childhood like their own free of screens, they will feel more negative about the use of screens in their home.
Today technology plays a critical role in our daily lives. Screens have replaced books, magazines, and writing using a pen and paper. As technology changes, we must be flexible and adaptive. For many children, screen time can provide positive experiences that enable learning.
Looking at the data about screen time and development, there is no reason for a parent to feel guilty for allowing their child to have screen time.
If a family prefers not to use screens, Dr. Ferguson said that is their choice. However, the assumption that all children should practice abstinence from screens is unrealistic in our technology-driven society.
Children use technology to learn, interact with peers, play games and watch programming. Ferguson said the best approach with screen time is to find a balance for your child. Parents have so many things to worry about daily that screen time should not be one of them.
*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.
She co-hosts the YouTube show, “The Smoking Nun,” with Kyle Curtis. The show airs weekly and tackles pseudoscience, current events, and crime stories.
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