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That Bombshell Screen Time Study is About Parents, Not Tablets

New data shows that screen time harms child development. But there’s evidence that good parenting between screen time sessions mitigates the negative impacts.

Toddlers who stare at screens for more than an hour each day are not just thumbing their button noses at AAP standards. They’re risking developmental delays in communication, motor skills, problem-solving, and social skills, according to a new bombshell study in JAMA Pediatrics. And their parents are letting them do it.

But while the JAMA study is well-designed and draws a strong correlation between screen time and developmental delays, it is not interesting because it’s wholly conclusive about causation. Outside factors are likely at play and the mechanisms by which screen time seems to affect development aren’t totally clear. But they are coming into focus. “It is notable that screen time reduced both children’s sleep even at this early age and reduced parents’ reading to children, which we know is a strong predictor of positive child outcomes, such as higher IQ,” Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University, who was not involved in the study, told CNN.

The men and women behind the study were more focused on the blue lights. Where the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children get no more than one hour of screen time per day (and that infants remain entirely unplugged), the researchers behind the new study double down, raising the possibility that screens in and of themselves may be harming children’s brains. “The digital interface has bright lights, it’s really reinforcing, it’s repetitive,” coauthor on the study Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary told WebMD. “Too much of this might be compromising development when children’s brains are rapidly developing.” Still, the researchers weren’t eager to make highly specific claims. “If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important,” said study co-author Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute, in a statement.

This finding seems to be in line with what many parents believe. One survey-based study of nearly 20,000 families seemed to indicate that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological well being. That could be wrong, but there are not totally clear findings to knock down that notion.

Even the new JAMA study (widely covered as a final nail in the coffin for screen time) subtly hints at the very real possibility that screens might not, in and of themselves, be causing problems and stunting children. Madigan and colleagues allow that parents plop their progeny in front of a screen at the cost of reading a story with them or taking them out to socialize and explore. Screen time might, for this reason, represent a break from learning. And that might be the larger issue.

“When young children are observing screens, they may be missing important opportunities to practice and master interpersonal, motor, and communication skills,” the study’s authors write. “When children are observing screens without an interactive or physical component, they are more sedentary and, therefore, not practicing gross motor skills, such as walking and running, which in turn may delay development in this area. Screens can also disrupt interactions with caregivers by limiting opportunities for verbal and nonverbal social exchanges.”

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Are screens a problem? Possibly. Dismissing AAP recommendations out of hand is poor practice, in general, and the research is still developing. Until we have more studies at our disposal, it certainly makes sense to limit children’s screen time to an hour a day, just to be safe.

But let’s face it. Most of the adverse effects listed in anti-screen time studies are glaringly similar to the adverse effects of parents not doing their jobs particularly well. Blame the screen if you must—but only after you have, between shows, taken your kids outside and read them a story.