Screen time for kids: Navigating the digital tightrope

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A recent study published in the journal Nature is human behavior Discusses the benefits and risks associated with screen time for children.

Study: Measuring the risks and benefits of screen time for children. Image credit: Dusan Petkovic /

How does screen time affect children?

A 2018 study found that nearly all teenagers in the United States had access to a smartphone. In addition, an editorial piece is published The Lancet 2019 underscores a severe lack of understanding of the risks, benefits and pitfalls of the rapidly changing digital landscape. Another editorial in the same year the nature He described the screen time issue as “the defining question of our age”.

In the United Kingdom, the Office of Communications reports that the amount of time young people spend online has almost doubled over the past decade. Previously, questions surrounding screen time focused primarily on the limited ways in which children engage with screens.

In comparison, in the modern world, the formats, volumes and types of media are almost limitless. As a result, deciding on the right amount of screen time that can be considered safe for their children has become challenging for the current generation of parents.

About the study

In the current study, the researchers aimed to provide all available evidence for parents and other caregivers to consider the potential benefits and risks associated with screen time for children. Here, an umbrella review was performed, during which researchers identified previously published meta-analyses that aggregated studies on screen time and child outcomes. Meta-analyses with adequate sample sizes and without publication bias were included in the present study.

The results obtained from these studies were subsequently converted to a standard metric to facilitate comparison.

Study results

The nature of interaction between children and digital screens was found to be an important aspect of whether screen time was considered harmful or beneficial to children’s health.

For example, digital platforms can help change children’s behavior, as demonstrated by using specific digital interventions to enhance educational outcomes. Despite this, several digital platforms can also cause harm, with social media often cited for its adverse effects on mental health, particularly among children and adolescents.

Researchers have consistently noted the link between the harmful effects of screen time, particularly regarding mental health effects such as depression. Indeed, none of the meta-analyses reviewed reported any benefits associated with screen time. This observation is consistent with the advice of the US Surgeon General, despite some significant but limited benefits of screen time, such as providing a space for social connection and self-expression among marginalized youth.

The research reviewed identified several potential ways to reduce harm from other forms of screen time. For example, television viewing was associated with poorer educational outcomes; However, a positive effect of children watching television with their parents and caregivers was observed.

Importantly, a negative correlation was observed between video games and literacy outcomes. However, a similar dichotomy was also noted, as some educational video games were associated with a positive association with numerical results and learning motivation.


Taken together, these findings indicate that individual outcomes may be influenced by what children watch on television and other digital platforms, as well as the mode in which they are exposed to these programs.

Reviewed meta-analyses that combined different types of screen engagement, such as general screen time, revealed detrimental effects on child health. However, when more nuanced approaches were included in the analysis, some benefits were associated with screen time under appropriate conditions.

The present study had some limitations. For example, most of the evidence was from small observational studies with little empirical evidence. Furthermore, the researchers did not examine the mechanisms of the observed associations, as they may differ by exposure and outcome.

Adequate evidence that is supported by high-quality studies is critical to providing parents with the best information to determine whether screen time will benefit or harm their children’s health. Thus, large-scale studies are urgently needed to elucidate the effects of screen time on child development and mental health.

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