Screen time: what does the research say?
Ed Trends

Screen time: what does the research say?

Screen time is a source of debate and overwhelming anxiety across most of the developed world. Over 95% of US teenagers had access to a smartphone in 2018 according to Pew Research Institute, and 45% said they were online “almost constantly.” For parents and teachers alike, the question ‘what is too much?’ is ever-present.

As screens become an increasing staple of classroom life as well as home and social spaces, it is important for educators to be aware of the impacts associated with screen time. And importantly we need to help young people (and increasingly ourselves) understand the relationship to screens and keep it in check. 

So what exactly does the research suggest about the effects of screen time and what are the risks, and benefits, that you should be aware of? 




Research into screen time – not quite as simple as it seems…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research around screen time, and particularly its effects on children, are far from conclusive. Despite some fairly scary headlines, connections between excessive screen time and poor cognitive development, increased depression and spiraling anxiety have not been confirmed. 

The widely publicized 2017 study in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found that the longer adolescents were engaged with screens, the greater their likelihood of having symptoms of depression or of attempting suicide. However, a more in-depth look at the same raw data by Amy Orben and Andrew K. Przybylski, at Oxford University, found only a tenuous relationship between adolescent well-being and the use of digital technology. In fact, studies have found that other variables such as drug use or being bullied are far more significant when it comes to wellbeing than screen time. 

So what does this mean? Well, when it comes to screen time things are a little more complicated than X= good and Y= bad. 

The first thing that we need to appreciate is that screen time in itself is a very varied activity. For example, 5 hours at a screen may consist of: playing a game, searching for information to do with a homework assignment, chatting with friends on social media or listening to a podcast. Contrary to popular discussion, there isn’t a monolithic activity called ‘screen time’ which displaces other beneficial activities. Instead, screens are now a central tool that enables students to work, play and socialize in the modern world. 



This idea is nicely summed up in the Goldilocks Hypothesis, tested by Przybylski and Weinstein at Oxford University in 2017. Much like the fairytale in the name, this hypothesis suggests a curvilinear relationship between benefit and screen time – i.e. too little screen time is bad, and too much is bad, leaving space for a ‘just right’ in the middle. 

The study, which tested over 120,000 young people in the UK, found that in every case, mental well being went down with little screen use, rose some with a certain amount, then started to drop again. Interestingly the authors also noted that “[t]hese analyses indicated that the possible negative effects of excessive screen time were less than a third of the size of the positive associations between well being and eating breakfast regularly (d = 0.54) or getting regular sleep (d = 0.58).”

So what can we take from this? Screen time is essential for healthy development in the modern age, but as with all things it should be used in moderation. Let’s look a bit more at some of the effects it can have.


Risks and benefits of screen time

Potential risks:

That’s not to say that there aren’t some risks to watch out for in the realm of technology use. As with just about every activity, there are some detrimental impacts. Commonly these are: 

  1. Reduction of physical activity: Excessive screen time can result in less daily movement which combined with poor eating habits could lead to weight gain and associated diseases.
  2. Computer Visions Syndrome: This is a condition caused by focusing the eyes on a computer, or device, for long uninterrupted periods of time. The eye muscles are then unable to recover from the strain due to a lack of adequate sleep. 
  3. Repetitive strain injuries: Sitting for long periods of time making repetitive small movements with a mouse or game controller can lead to strain and pain.



Associated benefits:

  • Educational benefits: Access to imaginative games, research sources and creative forms of expression like videos, can build problem-solving skills and feed pupils enthusiasm for topics they love.
  • Learning digital skills: Tech is an important tool for almost all employment and many practical aspects of modern life. Learning how to navigate digital skills is a vital life skill. 
  • Improve collaboration: Digital communication opens up the world, quite literally. You can play games with people from different countries, virtually visit new areas and share ideas within a variety of communities. 
  • Exposure to society and real life: Like it or not the digital world is an increasingly tangible part of our reality. How we conduct ourselves online can impact everything from personal finances to future job offers. Students need to be exposed to this side of life and understand how to act within it. 

Screen time is an inevitable part of our shift into a digital world, but it doesn’t have to be scary! To learn more about the world of edtech and all the fantastic ways it can help your students to learn and grow, try out the Kami blog.

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