The Ticking Screen Time Bomb

The Ticking Screen Time Bomb
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Parents, and the educators that teach their children, struggle to deal with students’ screen time. That struggle is hardly new — both have been griping about TV for decades. But the ubiquity of tablets and smartphones today, which are mercilessly engineered to addict users, is surely upping the challenge, and their effects could be seen in future school outcomes. The fruit of screen time may become visible after school starts, but like many other influences on outcomes, the roots start much earlier.

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Several studies have linked excessive early screen exposure to later academic struggles, and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have recommended restrictions to parents. New research by Mai Han Trinh and colleagues, published in JAMA Pediatrics, suggests that parents typically allow young children screen time far beyond those guidelines. Further, they found patterns of screen time use that I worry could widen gaps in school outcomes.

Trinh et al. looked at parent reports of screen time for thousands of children in New York State gathered at five points between the ages of one and three. They found nearly all the kids in this sample—just shy of 87 percent—exceeded the AAP’s recommendations. Median screen time for one-year-old children was half an hour, while the AAP recommends no screen time. For two-year-old children the median was two hours, twice what the AAP and WHO recommend at that age.

Researchers also looked at the change in screen time use over the course of early childhood and identified two major patterns in the data. One group, the larger, consisted of children with a stable level of screen time through early childhood, while the other group’s screen time increased sharply over time. For students on the more stable track, screen time started at 30 minutes at the one year mark before leveling off at two hours at age three. Over a quarter of the children were in the increasing track, and while they started out a bit lower at age one, at about 20 minutes daily, they averaged four hours of screen time at age three, which was twice the average, and four times the AAP guidelines.

Those average numbers might give you pause, but if immoderate screen time is the threat, we should focus attention on the children who are getting the highest doses, and who face the greatest risk for harm. When Trinh, et. al., looked at the characteristics of children in the highest 10th percentile of screen time, they found several attributes with associations, some aligned with academic achievement gaps later in school. Children of parents without a graduate degree, which is a rough indicator of socioeconomic status, were less likely to be in the top decile. Interestingly, children in parent and home-based care, as opposed to a day-care type arrangement, were more than twice as likely to be in the top 10%. The most staggering statistics were for non-Hispanic black children, which compared to white children, were almost five times as likely to fall into the group of highest exposure.  

It’s important to recognize that one study may well not generalize broadly, so young kids’ screen time exposure may be less troubling across the board. However, it’s just as possible that the reality could be even more severe than the study suggests. Limited as they are, these results leave me with three thoughts, and none are very encouraging.

First, it’s probable that today’s one-year-olds face an even more challenging screen-scape than did the children in this study. After all, this new study is based on old data, some of it seven years old; and what a difference seven years makes for children’s digital exposure today. Screens are far more ubiquitous now than 2012, when the iPhone 5 was at the very cutting edge of smartphones, and Snapchat was barely off the ground. Today’s hardware and apps are far savvier and more effective at hooking users than 7 years ago, which could mean today’s one-year-olds are getting more screen time due to more addictive apps. Also, most prior studies on the harm of screens have focused on TV use. How might we expect tablets, with their ability to chip away at our attention span, to affect children and their foundation for success in school? It is plausible that the reality today is worse than the study suggests.

Secondly, this study also suggests, and the AAP has stressed, that parents are key to solving this problem. Children’s daily screen exposure goes down noticeably, on the whole, for those in center-based care and those in school. The excess screen time that we see in this study take place under the parents’ watch, and the responsibility to model and police its use lies with them.

Finally, although the results here cannot be taken as gospel, these numbers should raise serious questions about whether the out-of-school environment that drives academic differences at the starting gate of school — differences which stubbornly stick around throughout schooling — is made worse by screen time use. The work of closing achievement gaps is hard enough as it stands, it’s a good bet that screens are making it harder.

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