Scan the headlines on any given day, and you’ll likely find at least one about the perils of “screen time.” We’re addicted to our smartphones! Binge watching is killing our sex lives! So, it follows we may be even more concerned about how increased time spent in front of screens might be affecting the most impressionable among us: Won’t someone please think of the children?
This week, the World Health Organization answered by releasing a new set of recommendations about activity, behavior, and sleep for children younger than 5 that included specific directives about what it termed “sedentary screen time.” According to these new WHO guidelines, children between 2 and 5 should be limited to only 60 minutes of screen time per day (and the less the better). Children under 2, it says, should not spend any time with screens at all. WHO’s new screen use recommendations bear similarity to guidelines issued in 2016 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend that children under 18 months get no screen time, kids between 2 and 5 should limit their use to an hour, and ideally, any screen time should be spent “co-watching” with engaged adults.
In a former life as a developmental psychology researcher studying how children learn from watching others, I met thousands of parents with children under 5 who came into the lab for research. In the waiting room, I saw how families took radically different approaches to their offspring’s screen use. Some parents proudly told me about their screenless lifestyle, clearly wanting me to validate them as having made the right decision. Others had no qualms about sitting their kids down with their phone. Others did the same but kept apologizing to me for it, as if they were sure that researchers like me would judge them for their parenting choices. I generally wasn’t—I’m not a parent, and the one thing I took away from that job was that parents really want to do right by their kids. But I can see why it touched a particularly sensitive nerve, given how society’s love for judging parenting choices is merging with the greater cultural conversation around whether our digital devices are rotting our brains, changing our attention span, and maybe toppling democracy.
I imagine hard and fast rules like those issued by WHO might exacerbate that inclination to judge parents. Just scroll through social media (oh no, even more screen time!), and you’ll see lots of people taking the new recommendations to mean that screens are dangerous for young children. The guidelines also obscure something more significant when it comes to how best to think about screen time: It’s not the screens that are bad, necessarily—it’s how we use them. And if we dig into the research the WHO used as the basis of its recommendations, the conclusions are much messier than the tidy guidelines it recommends.
To put together its report, the U.N. agency looked at thousands of existing studies examining links between things like young children’s physical activity and sedentary behavior (including sedentary screen use) and certain outcomes, such as obesity and motor and cognitive development. But these studies were a mixed bag when it came to their methodology and findings, and didn’t necessarily find connections between increased screen time and adverse outcomes. Some studies found that more screen time was associated with obesity, for instance, but other studies didn’t find any connection. In its full report on the guidelines, WHO acknowledges that “for the critical outcomes, there was moderate to very low-quality evidence for screen time and adiposity [obesity], motor and cognitive development and psychosocial health” and that the overall quality of evidence it reviewed on sedentary time with or without screens “was rated as very low.”
What’s more, if we look a little closer, it seems the agency’s recommendations for limiting screen time are not actually based on the idea that more screen time is necessarily harmful. Instead, it appears to rely on evidence that shows that more physical activity most likely benefits young children and that less screen time to achieve that won’t harm them. What essentially boils down to a “let kids play!” recommendation also comes out in other guidelines in the WHO report, including suggestions that children should not be restrained—sitting in strollers, high chairs, or strapped to a caregiver—for more than an hour, again to give more opportunities for children to exercise.
What we know from decades of child development research also squares with this more nuanced reading of the evidence. We know that kids primarily learn from playing, moving, talking, and watching other humans. The time they spend with a screen is time that could, in theory, involve some of these types of learning. The problem with screens is not necessarily that they’re screens; it’s that they can be addictive, that they’re not always conducive to being active and observant of the world, and that, perhaps most significantly, they present an opportunity cost to kids. If kids spent hours a day sitting silently staring at a blank wall, it wouldn’t do them good, either.
But the overarching takeaway is that there’s still so much we don’t know about screen time and young children. This is, in part, because how difficult its effects are to measure. You can’t just throw 100 kids into a lab and control their every move. Instead, researchers must work around real kids living in real families in the real world, who live vastly different and complex daily lives. It’s also because the technology is moving faster than research. To understand how screen use affects children, we need to follow them for years, which means waiting for a generation of kids to grow up. But consider that any researcher that may have started work just five years ago probably didn’t account for factors like the rise of smart speakers, interactive children’s shows on Netflix, or the first steps toward virtual reality. Even if they did, collecting data and publishing an academic paper can take another few years. By the time new research is out, there’s likely already another shiny new innovation vying for kids’ attention.
Still, there are many talented researchers working on unraveling questions around screen use. One important nuance they’ve found is that not all screen time is created equal. As education policy expert Lisa Guernsey has written about for Future Tense, over the past decade, an increasing number of studies has shown that children, even at very young ages, can benefit from using media when it’s designed for learning and helps catalyze conversations. For instance, psychologists have found that kids are more likely to learn words from videos that build in interactivity, like allowing kids to click on a box to see what’s inside, as opposed to videos that they passively watch. Similarly, kids are more likely to learn words from someone they’re talking to on Skype than from passively watching a video. That’s because a FaceTime call to grandma is more interactive than watching Peppa Pig on YouTube. Similarly, watching Peppa Pig with your parents and talking about it is more interactive than just passive watching.
It’s also worth noting that some research has shown that a good old-fashioned book or face-to-face game may invite more genuine connection, since adults tend to get sucked into passively enjoying screen media’s bells and whistles, too. Several studies have found that when parents read an e-book with their kids, they’re less likely to ask story-related questions and engage in conversation about the narrative compared with parents who read traditional books to their kids.
Of course, keeping these devices away or making sure that the only screen time your child gets involves deep engagement and follow-up is easier said than done. Again, I’m not a parent, but I’ve seen the wonders a tablet can do for a bored toddler on a multihour flight or at a restaurant with parents who just want to have an hour with their adult friends without hiring a sitter. And there’s no evidence that kids who end up in front of screens so a parent can get dinner started, put a load of laundry in, or, God forbid, just take a few minutes for themselves will be ruined for life.
Fixed guidelines on screen time like those from WHO may be well-intentioned messaging to remind modern parents to give their kids opportunities to lead active lives (nuance isn’t catchy). But they are arbitrary and, for some families, may be unrealistic. That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t try to keep unsupervised screen time for young children to a minimum. Or that they shouldn’t be mindful of giving their kids opportunities to move, interact, and build meaningful relationships. But we should remember that kids are resilient. That extra 15 minutes of Paw Patrol probably isn’t going to be what makes or breaks their middle school algebra grade, their ability to make friends, or their job prospects at 25. With a caring parent, they’ll probably be just fine.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.