Robust Research and Data: The Foundation of Effective Screen Time Recommendations for Families

April 19, 2021

Raising a child in the digital world can be overwhelming. When should they get a device? How long should they be on it? What is “good” screen time? How do you create balance with their physical and mental wellbeing? Parents want to make an informed decision and feel confident in their choices. But how should families make the right decisions when there is so much conflicting information out there?

Let’s begin with some of the recommendations that currently exist and are widely shared. The most recent guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no screen time (except for video calls with family) for children until 18-24 months old, and kids between 2 and 5 years should have one hour of screen time or less each day. This is nearly identical to the World Health Organization’s screen time recommendations for young children. These are valuable guidelines, but it’s also important for parents to remember that there is room for interpretation, as different families have their own unique situations.

We believe it is important to differentiate between multiple types of screen time. Using screens for education, playing interactive or collaborative games, taking opportunities to communicate or virtually hang out with friends, and video chatting with family are more productive and healthy ways to spend time online than passively watching a screen alone for long periods of time.

There is recent research around mental health and screen time that is concerning, but overall much more research is needed to prove causation and not just correlation. According to Chloe Reichel’s 2019 review of health studies, there is some association between screen time and inattention problems, language delays, and sub-optimal cognitive development in young children. Also troubling, there has been a rise in depression, loneliness, and mental health problems in children and teens, with some studies showing association between these health effects and increased screen time. However, to date, screen time research lacks strong longitudinal studies that would offer definitive evidence of a causal relationship. Jerri Lynn Hogg, media psychologist, says, “As psychologists, it’s really important for us to have scientific-based evidence behind what we’re recommending. We’re not there yet.”

There are ongoing studies and future research opportunities that aim to improve and expand upon the existing data. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been conducting important, impactful work in this field through the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Beginning in 2015, it is the largest ever longitudinal study on teen brain and behavioral development in the US, studying more than 10,000 kids through young adulthood and measuring how multiple factors, including screen time, impact development. Data from this ongoing study have already been useful for researchers, and will continue to inform experts for years to come.

Another proposed study comes from introduced federal legislation. The bipartisan Children And Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) Act would fund a longitudinal study through the NIH that would focus very specifically on the cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development effect of screens and digital media on infants, children, and adolescents. FOSI has endorsed this bill, and will continue to support efforts that produce robust, accurate data in order to better guide and inform parents to keep their kids safe online.

Other than screen time limits for infants and young children, what recommendations exist to help parents right now? Given the data that currently exists, we advise parents to spend quality time with their kids while they’re using screens, co-viewing some content and exploring new apps and games together (APA, 2020). This habit creates an open line of communication around online safety and potentially harmful content that kids may come across, while stopping short of time-intensive surveillance. There are also resources available to help families navigate the changing online experience for kids of different ages. FOSI’s Good Digital Parenting resources include videos, resources, and customizable online safety agreements to lay out the most effective ground rules for your family. FOSI’s resources can be used as a way to guide a family conversation about limits on screen time, games and apps, and other content.

In order to create the safest online experience for kids, we need to start with robust, accurate data. Obtaining this data requires high quality, longitudinal research on  representative populations of children and teens. Stronger data will result in clearer guidance and recommendations for parents. Supplying parents with the best information with which to make screen time and technology decisions for their families is an essential part of improving the online safety experience.

Written by

Andrew Zack

Andrew Zack is the Policy Manager for the Family Online Safety Institute, supporting policy and research work relating to online safety issues, laws, and regulations. He works with federal and state legislatures, relevant federal agencies, and industry leaders to develop and advance policies that promote safe and positive online experience for families.
Andrew joins FOSI after five years in Senator Ed Markey's office, where he worked primarily on education, child welfare, and disability policies. Andrew studied Government and Psychology at the College of William and Mary.