Screen Time: How Much Is Too Much?

20 March, 2017

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Many children spend a lot of time watching or playing with electronic media – from televisions to video games, computers and other devices.

So, it is natural that parents should wonder about all the time children spend looking at a TV or computer screen. Americans say "screen time" when they talk about any time spent in front of an electronic device.

Perhaps parents should ease up on their concerns about screen time, at least for older boys and girls.

Until last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that children and teenagers have no more than two hours of screen time a day.

The academy has since changed that advice.

In October 2016, the group's members agreed on a policy statement called "Media and Young Minds." In the statement, they listed a number of suggestions for parents and child care specialists.

Here are some of the suggestions.

  • "Avoid digital media use (except video-chatting) in children younger than 18 to 24 months."
  • For children ages 18 to 24 months, choose "high-quality" media with your child. Avoid letting the child watch media alone. And avoid using media as a way to calm your child.
  • For children two to five years of age, limit screen time use to one hour of "high-quality programming" a day and watch it with your child.
  • For children ages 6 and older, limit time spent using media and the kinds of media. Also, make sure screen time does not take the place of healthy sleep, physical activity and "other behaviors essential to health."
  • Make sure to have media-free times together as a family, such as dinner or driving. Also make some areas of the home media-free. Turn off your child's electronic devices an hour before bedtime.

The AAP also suggests that doctors "educate parents about brain development in the early years" and the importance of hands-on, free play that builds language, thinking and social skills.

The group also suggests that parents balance a child's screen time with other activities, such as getting enough sleep, exercising and doing homework.

However, some experts question claims that too much screen time is harmful.

Christopher Ferguson teaches psychology at Stetson University in the American state of Florida. He notes a lack of evidence supporting reports that too many hours spent playing video games or watching TV is truly harmful.

Still, Ferguson notes, many people believe that too much screen time is bad.

"So there's always this kind of sense of there being a zero-sum game that the more time our kids are spending with screens, the less time they're spending with academics, the more they're getting exposed to all kinds of anti-social messages or objectionable messages that we would not like our kids to be exposed to."

However, there are only so many hours in a day. If a child spends six hours a day watching a screen, that is six hours he or she could be doing other things, like reading, enjoying a sport, or simply staring up at the clouds.

Ferguson doesn't dispute that those activities are important. He seems more interested in one idea: the link between video games and violent or risky behavior.

Ubisoft staff demonstrate the
Ubisoft staff demonstrate the "Far Cry 3" video game during a news conference in Los Angeles, California 2012. (REUTERS/Gus Ruelas)

When he saw results from a recent British survey on screen time, he wanted to know more.

The British study found a small negative effect -- about a one percent increase -- in aggression and depression among children who had six or more hours of screen time a day. He wanted to see if there was a similar effect among young people in the United States.

So, Ferguson and a team of investigators examined answers from a survey on risky behaviors. The study involved about 6,000 boys and girls in Florida. Their average age was 16. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the questionnaire.

Data from this 2013 survey found that American children are also fairly resistant to the negative effects of electronic media.

Among those who played video games, watched TV or worked on the computer up to six hours a day, the survey found:

  • a small increase in delinquency of half of one percent;
  • a 1.7 percent increase in signs of depression; and
  • a 1.2 percent negative effect on school grades.

The researchers found no increase in risky sex or driving behaviors, use of illegal substances or eating disorders. Ferguson adds that young people can have up to six hours of screen time a day without an increase in problematic behavior.

"Kids actually can consume a larger amount of media than we kind of thought in the past -- up to six hours per day -- without there being any kind of noticeable correlation with problematic behaviors."

The researchers published their findings in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.

The American Psychological Association created a task force to look at a possible link between video games and violence. In August 2015, the group issued a statement saying it found that violent video games did lead to aggressive behavior in the player. It also said there is not enough evidence to prove that this link leads to "criminal violence or delinquency."

Ferguson is openly critical of this APA study and others that link video game use and violence.

To further argue his point that screen time is not harmful, Ferguson adds that children should become familiar with screen technology. Electronic devices, he says, are a part of our everyday lives -- from school to work to our personal lives.

To balance that statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that "parents should not feel pressured to introduce technology early." The group adds that computer interfaces are very easy for children to learn. Give a child a new electronic device and most likely they will figure it out -- easily.

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Jessica Berman reported this story for VOANews. Anna Matteo adapted her report for Learning English and added additional reporting. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

screen n. the surface on which the image appears in an electronic display

essential adj. extremely important and necessary

data n. factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation

zero-sum game phrase : a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it : (Mathematics) (in game theory) a contest in which one person's loss is equal to the other person's gain

survey v. to ask (many people) a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something : ( n.) an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

negative adj. harmful or bad : not wanted

delinquencyn. conduct that is out of accord with accepted behavior or the law

consume v. to use (fuel, time, resources, etc.)

correlation n. the relationship between things that happen or change together

interface n. a system that is used for operating a computer : a system that controls the way information is shown to a computer user and the way the user is able to work with the computer