Screen time for kids: Navigating the digital tightrope

Children's Health

A recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior discusses the benefits and risks associated with screen time for children.

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

How does screen time affect children?

A 2018 survey found that nearly all teenagers in the United States had access to a smartphone. Furthermore, an editorial piece published in The Lancet in 2019 underscored the severe lack of understanding of the rapidly changing digital landscape’s risks, benefits, and harms. In the same year, another editorial in Nature described the screen time issue as “the defining question of our age.”

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

Comparatively, in the modern world, the formats, volume, and types of media are nearly unlimited. As a result, decision-making regarding the appropriate quantity 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 present study, 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. Herein, an umbrella review was performed, during which the researchers identified previously published meta-analyses that aggregated studies on screen time and child outcomes. Meta-analyses with sufficient sample sizes and without publication bias were included in the current study.

The findings obtained from these studies were subsequently transformed into a standard metric to simplify comparisons.

Study findings

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

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

The researchers also consistently noted associations between the harmful effects of screen time, particularly regarding mental health effects such as depression. In fact, none of the reviewed meta-analyses reported any benefits associated with screen time. This observation is in agreement with the U.S. Surgeon General’s advice, despite some noted but limited benefits of screen time, such as social connectedness among marginalized youth and providing a space for self-expression.

Several potential ways to minimize harm from other forms of screen time were identified in the reviewed studies. For example, watching television was associated with poor learning outcomes; however, children watching television with their parents and caregivers were found to have a positive impact.

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


Taken together, these findings indicate that individual outcomes can 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.

The reviewed meta-analyses that pooled different types of screen engagement, such as general screen time, revealed harmful effects on child health. However, when a more nuanced approach was incorporated into the analysis, certain benefits were associated with screen time under the appropriate conditions.

The current study had certain limitations. For example, most evidence was from small observation studies with little experimental evidence. Furthermore, the researchers did not examine the mechanisms of the observed associations, as they can differ by exposure and outcome.

Sufficient evidence that is supported by high-quality studies is crucial for providing parents with the best information to determine whether screen time would 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.

Journal reference:

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