Screen time: what does research say?

The issue of screen time is one that has fascinated me for a while. It is something that teachers and parents often express a concern over. Yet, if screen time really is dangerous, this will impact our whole society! It isn’t just the younger generation that appears to be constantly attached to their devices. Admittedly, I recognise a certain level of addiction in myself. Is it really that dangerous? I always suspected that it wasn’t. On the other hand, I also presumed that the argument had some sort of scientific grounding. Dismissing it completely would be irresponsible and could prove costly. Therefore, I wanted to conduct my own research. Here is a summary of my findings:

Not all screen time is equal

Almost every website, study and article that I have read makes a distinction between different types of screen time. We must move past the blanket statement that all screen time is damaging and wasted. The one-size-fits-all idea has been deemed outdated and obsolete. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is often quoted regarding time limits, but even they have recently updated their guidelines to acknowledge different categories of screen time. Quality screen time, used for creative or communication purposes, is different to passive entertainment purposes. Similarly, Common Sense Media outlines four categories and the “clear difference” between their value:

  • Passive consumption
  • Interactive consumption
  • Communication
  • Content creation

For these reasons, Joanne Orlando, writing for The Conversation (2016), concludes that time is not the most appropriate measure of screen time. Teachers/parents needn’t worry too much about the time spent on devices. Instead, they should consider how the devices are being used.

“There really is no magic number that’s “just right.” What’s more important is the quality of kids’ media, how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, and how you engage your kids with it.”

Common Sense Media

However, recommendations for pre-school children and infants are stricter. It is recommended that children under two years do not have access to digital screens and children between two and five have no more than one hour access (this must be high-quality content). For more information, click here. For older children, it becomes less about screen dangers and more about striking a balance between online and offline activities.

Do not displace unplugged play/interactions

One of the major concerns around screen time is actually about what it often displaces. Offline interactions, exploration and physical activity are all hugely important and cannot be substituted. Parenting specialist Maggie Dent explains the emotional, physical and social development that children, especially young children, need. She goes on to state that devices can get in the way of crucial human interactions. She does, however, also recognise the educational potential of devices. Again, it’s about how they are used and finding a balance. Dr. Kirsty Goodwin, an expert on children and technology, calls this a balance between “screen time and green time”. At home, it’s important that technology does not distract from human conversations and relationship development. Dent gives the example of mealtimes. It is vital that children (and adults) are undistracted by devices during these key family times.

As well as physical and social activities, a study by Mergi and Roni (2017) showed that access to technology also reduces the frequency of children’s reading (even if the device offers digital books). This is another example of technology distracting from valuable activities.

The all-important balance is as important in schools as it is at home. Technology offers fantastic learning opportunities in the classroom, but students must also interact with the adults and students around them. Teachers planning technology integration must consider the added value. The SAMR model and the 4 Cs are useful for this. If it doesn’t add anything, it could be displacing something of higher value.

The effects on sleep

I can relate to the impact on sleep and I need to personally take action to prevent these issues. From my own experience and the research, it appears that screen time can impact sleep in the following ways:

  • Delayed bed time
  • Sleep interruptions
  • Lower quality sleep

Sleep is hugely important for everyone, especially children and teenagers. Sleep deprivation negatively affects our behaviour, mood, brain function and learning. Firstly, children with access to technology at night often stay up later because of it. Even when they do sleep, notifications can interrupt it. When I wake up in the night, I often check my phone for the time. This draws my attention to messages and alerts and usually wakes me up further, affecting my ability to get back to sleep. According to Dr. Goodwin, 87% of teenagers also sleep with their “digital teddy bears”. This is strongly discouraged. Click here to read the rest of this article.

Furthermore, Dr. Goodwin explains the function of melatonin and the impact that screens can have on its production. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep. Exposure to blue light (from a phone or tablet, for example) affects the production of this hormone and delays the time it takes for people to fall asleep. This is particularly evident in young people because their eyes are still developing, but it can also affect adults. It is therefore important to have a break between technology and bedtime. Experts generally recommend around an hour/ninety minutes in between. Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer calls this a “digital sunset”.

Technology and the “feel-good” hormone

In recent years, there have been several high-profile articles comparing technology to other forms of addiction. These have largely been debunked and labelled as “scaremongering”. However, technology (especially social media) does release dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone). There is a connection between this hormone and the development of addictions. Inappropriate and excessive use of technology can lead to addiction in extreme cases, but dopamine is more like a hit of “brain candy”. Comparisons to heroin are misleading and unhelpful. Dr. Sarah McKay helpfully explains that water also triggers dopamine. It is not something to be feared.

“There’s nothing wrong with social media and cell phones – it’s the imbalance.”

Simon Sinek

It becomes a problem when young people (especially teenagers) use technology excessively, lose sleep, and become dependent on their social media for the feel-good hits. Click here to watch a powerful interview with Simon Sinek on these issues.

Conclusion and implications

As suspected, the issues around screen time are not so ‘black and white’. There are scientific reasons to be cautious and sensible, but there’s no reason to “digitally amputate” our students (to steal a phrase from Dr. Goodwin). In today’s world, banning technology would be both unrealistic and a disservice to our students. Instead, we need to educate children to use it mindfully. They should be in control of their technology rather than the other way around.

Implications for parents:

  • Model appropriate use of technology
  • Ban technology from key family times
  • Do not allow technology in your children’s bedrooms
  • Restrict access to inappropriate sites
  • Establish a routine of “digital sunset”, ideally ninety minutes before bed time

Implications for teachers:

  • Assign a balance of online and offline homework that is not excessive
  • Ensure that class technology does not displace important human interactions
  • Ensure that technology adds value
  • Model appropriate use of technology

Implications for me outside of work:

  • Buy an alarm clock to replace my own “digital teddy bear”
  • Establish my own “digital sunset”
My action: my new alarm clock will allow me to switch off my devices at night

What other advice do you have for parents, teachers or students? What other implications can you identify for your own personal and professional lives? Please keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below.

Further reading:

These related blog posts might also be of interest:

A guide to cyber threats

Social media: why thirteen?






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  1. Hi Adam,

    We had a meeting last night with our parent advisory group that was intended to be more focused on social media but inevitably branched into discussions around screen time. Your post provides some valuable insights and advice – I will definitely be sharing it with our parents.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks so much for the feedback. I’m really pleased that this article is of value to you and your parent group. You might also be interested in these social media posts that I have written:

      Thanks again for getting in touch. It means a lot to know that my blog is useful to others.



  2. Lots of common sense advice here that, sadly, doesn’t seem to be very common. You might be interested to know the AAP recently changed their advice on screen time for under 2s. They now say shared screen time of quality content is appropriate from 18 months old and cite Sesame Street as an example of quality content.

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for sharing this. I remember reading this but advice from others still went with two years. To err on the side of caution, I went with two for the sake of this article. Whatever age you deem appropriate, I guess the important part is that it is shared and quality screen time. How many parents use iPads as digital babysitters?



      1. Speaking of digital babysitters, I have to share an anecdote. Recently my sister in law was in a restaurant around midnight and saw a couple with a 1 year old in a pram. There was a stand fixed to the sides of the pram holding a smartphone above the bassinet in order to occupy baby and leave Mummy and Daddy in peace. What quality content was baby watching? Right at the moment my sister in law was looking it was a Shakira video on YouTube.

  3. Very enlightening….! My nieces and nephews only get to use their tablets on weekends except they have work from school which they have to do on the tablets or devices. I am an advocate of less screen time. From personal experience, it pulls you away from other important or more important things that need to be done. Even offline, there are a myriad of games and apps that can engage children and ultimately take their attention from other things. Since I have no children of mine yet, I study how my nephews and nieces and even the children I teach make use of their devices and I personally have come to the conclusion that less screen time is to be enforced upon them.

    1. Hi Akin,

      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree that screen time can act as a distraction from other activities (activities that usually have more value). These are just guidelines with some explanations. It will always be a personal choice for parents. In the end, it’s whatever you deem appropriate for your children and family life.



      1. True and spot on, Adam. But I wish a lot of parents need to see the need for stricter and full monitoring if they have to let their children enjoy more screen time. Thank you for this revealing post though.

  4. Incredible post. I used this in an “everyone” email to my team. You were referenced and quoted. Great stuff. Thank you for taking the time to put your thoughts into words.

    1. Hi Bryan,

      Thank you for the kind words. I’m really pleased that you found value here, enough to share it with your team. I hope it’s useful for them as well.



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