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In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a short report and a list of guidelines ^{[1]} for parents regarding children’s media use. According to Neilsen Media Research in 1998, adolescents spent at least 21 hours a week watching television, then the main electronic thief of American’s attentions. The AAP accused television of misrepresenting sexual matters, glamorizing tobacco and alcohol, and contributing to obesity and academic underperformance. For children under 2, the guidelines discouraged all television viewing.

Fast forward to 2016, the AAP updated their guidelines to acknowledge the growing influence and ubiquity of screens in American life. Today we have not only televisions, but also tablets, laptops, and smart phones to capture our attentions. The no-screens-under-2 rule from the old guidelines lives on in the new guidelines ^{[2]}, with the exception of video chats.

For children over 2, the AAP originally set a blanket limit of two hours of screen time. In the new guidelines, for children aged 2 to 5 they restrict media use to one hour a day, and emphasize “high-quality programming” and co-viewing. A limit for children aged 6 and older is not specified; the only recommendation is that the parents monitor the content and duration of media use ^{[3]}. (Note: In the new report, “media use” refers to use for entertainment, not homework.)

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In addition to the concerns about media use expressed in 1999, in the 2016 report the AAP cited newer studies that addressed the negative effect that increased screen time has on children’s sleep and development in cognitive, emotional, social, and executive functioning skills. Excess parental use of screens also poses a problem, as it decreases parent-child interaction and play.

The importance of setting limits on tween and teen media use is spotlighted when one considers the current statistics. According to a 2015 report from Common Sense Media ^{[4]}, tweens spend an average of almost 5 hours a day on entertainment (i.e. for activities not related to homework/schooling) media; teens, a little over 7.

I don’t deny that media technology has benefited us. Thanks to advancements in this sector, I could easily contact friends and family 8,000 miles away when I lived in China. My sister and I could home school overseas in a city whose English resources were skimpy compared to places like Beijing and Shanghai. In college, all assignments except for those in math go through an online portal, and my school primarily communicates with students through email. Through online and TV news, updates on world events reach us more quickly, making us better informed than past generations.

Certainly, screen time has impacted our world positively. Like all good things, however, an excess of screens turns the positive negative.

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For decades researchers have studied the impact of television, phones, and other electronics on our behaviors and brains.

  • A study from December 2018 of over 40,000 children aged 2 to 17, psychological measures concluded that children who used screens for more than an hour a day exhibited lower and lower well-beings ^{[5]}.
  • Researchers evaluating the results of three similar studies found that children who watched fantastical television programs performed lower on executive function skills ^{[6]} than children who watched realistic programs, played, or read.
  • A 2017 review ^{[7]} of the available literature summarized the following:
    • TV viewing is inversely associated with physical strength.
    • TV viewers are prone to passive over-eating, indicating a correlation between screen time and weight.
    • Screen usage negatively affects sleep duration and efficiency.
    • A Korean study found an association between increased TV time and risk of language delay.
    • Computer and video game users exhibit more severe depression symptoms and anxiety.
video games addiction
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As in any statistics situation, maintaining the difference between correlation and causation is important. To say that television causes obesity or that video games cause depression is inaccurate. In most if not all cases, another factor bridges the gap.

For example, television watching is associated with weight gain because television watching is a primarily sedentary activity. In addition, when eating in front of a TV viewers don’t process the quantity or quality of their food, and one is more likely to settle on the couch with a bag of chips than a cup of apple slices.

For another example: Video games themselves are not to blame for decreased psychological well-being, but their unintended consequences do contribute to the problem. Though in recent years video games have become more community interactive, video gaming is mostly a solitary pastime. A video game addiction could foster social isolation, which creates a domino effect of psychological decline.

screen obsessed
Image by Paul Rogers at The New York Times

In my experience, screens create a passive social fallback. When I meet with friends, one will often whip out a phone to show the group a video. If we’re near a TV they’ll throw in a movie. If someone has a computer, they stream a show. Through corporate media usage, we can congregate on a couch for a couple of hours to watch a film and, when we disperse, feel like we’ve connected – not really to each other, though.

Do you agree with these conclusions? How do you think more screen time has affected us, both positively and negatively?

For more food for thought, I recommend this article, by journalist Marie Winn, called “TV: The Plug-In-Drug.” Though written in 1977, the insights remain relevant in 2019.

[1] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Media Education.” Pediatrics, vol. 104, no. 2, Aug. 1999. AAP News & Journals Gateway, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1999, link.
[2] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Media and Young Minds.” Pediatrics, vol. 138, no. 5, Nov. 2016. AAP News & Journals Gateway, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016, link.
[3] Middlebrook, Hailey. “New screen time rules for kids, by doctors.” CNN, 21 Oct. 2016, link.
[4] “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens.” Common Sense Media, Common Sense Media, Inc., 2015, link.
[5] Twenge, Jean M., and W. K. Campbell. “Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study.” Preventive Medicine Reports, vol. 12, Dec. 2018, pp. 271-283. ScienceDirect, Elsevier, Inc., n.d., link.
[6] Lillard, Angeline S., M. B. Drell, E. M. Richey, K. Boguszewski, and E. D. Smith. “Further Examination of the Immediate Impact of Television on Children’s Executive Function.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 51, no. 6, 2015, pp. 792-805. American Psychology Association, 2015, link.
Domingues-Montanari, Sophie. “Clinical and Psychological Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Children: Effects of Screen Time on Children.” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, vol. 53, no. 4, 2017, pp. 333-338. Wiley Online Library, 6 Feb. 2017.