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Average Screen Time Is Rising for Children, But Mobile Devices Aren’t to Blame

By Henry Kronk
February 21, 2019

Screen time has emerged as a popular boogey man around the internet. Its numerous negative effects have led many to decry online or device-based education efforts as unhealthy for children. Research published this week by Professors Weiwei Chen and Jessica Adler at the Florida International University Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work has indeed confirmed that average screen time among children aged 0 to 5 has increased over the past twenty years. But there’s a catch. Mobile device-use has accounted for just a small amount of this jump. Kids are watching more TV. 

Chen and Adler analyzed self-reported diary data from the Child Development Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics entered in 1997 and 2014. They broke their sample into two groups: respondents aged 0-2 and 3-5. Among the younger group, average daily screen time increased from 1.32 to 3.05 hours per day. The older group, meanwhile, did not experience an increase in screen time larger than the researchers’ margin of error. 

The data also distinguished between time watching television and other uses of screens, such as logging on to a computer, and playing video games. 

The single largest factor driving the increase in screen time was television. 

As the authors write, “By 2014, total screen time among children aged 0 to 2 years had risen to 3.05 hours per day. Most of that time (2.62 hours) was spent on television, while 0.37 hours were spent on mobile devices. The older cohort experienced no significant change in total screen time but an increase of about 80% in television time. On average, children aged 3 to 5 years spent 2.14 hours on television and 0.42 hours on mobile devices. In 2014, television time accounted for 86% and 78% of total screen time for the age groups of 0 to 2 years and 3 to 5 years, respectively.”

In 1997, screen time denoted “any activity while watching television programs or videotapes plus time spent on electronic video games and home-computer–related activities.” In 2014, it referred to “television, videotapes, digital video disc, game devices, computer, cell phone, smartphone, tablet, electronic reader, and child’s learning devices.”

The authors note that, among those who were using devices for long periods, they were typically boys from low-income families. They conclude, writing, “Future research should examine the association between screen time and other Child Development Supplement measures, such as parenting style and sibling and peer influence. Meanwhile, as stakeholders warn against an over-reliance on mobile devices, they should be mindful that young children spend most of their screen time watching television.”

More data is better in general, and it’s possible that 1997 and 2014 mark anomalies. If other studies could confirm the results, the conclusions presented would change the conversation surrounding screen time and its negative effects in education. 

On the other hand, the researchers had access to a large sample. They looked at 1327 entries from 1994 and 443 from 2014. Many studies published in academic journals use samples of fewer than 100 individuals. 

The Averages Presented Exceed Recommended Daily Screen

There’s no doubt that too much screen time for anyone brings with it negative consequences down the line. That is doubly true for minors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:

For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.

For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

American Academy of Pediatrics

Featured Image: Hal Gatewood, Unsplash.

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