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New research finds that children consume an average of more than 8 hours of screen time per day by the time they reach 12 years old. SDI Productions/Getty Images
  • Digital media use has become a ubiquitous part of life for children.
  • Researchers have found that children’s screen time increases as they get older.
  • This can have many benefits, but it can also harm children if their usage gets out of control.
  • Experts suggest creating a media plan and following it to help your children regulate their usage.

Digital media has become a ubiquitous part of life for children. They frequently use computers and tablets as a part of their schooling. In addition, many also have their own smartphones, tablets, or computers for home use.

But what effect is this having on their still-developing young minds? Is it affecting their mental health or their ability to think and learn? Are they using these devices too much?

A new study conducted by a group of European researchers helps to shed some light on these questions.

The team conducted their study in a public primary school located in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland.

The study included children between the ages of 8 and 12 in grades 5P to 8P (approximately equivalent to U.S. grades 3 to 6).

Altogether, 118 children with an average age of 10.38 years participated. Approximately half were girls and half were boys.

The researchers collected data through questionnaires filled out by parents, teachers, and the children themselves.

The questionnaires covered several categories, including digital technology use, attentional problems, mental health and sleep, grades, and motivation and beliefs

The children also performed certain cognitive tasks at school, including testing for how fast they performed, how often their attention wandered, and how impulsive they were.

The researchers found that media consumption increased as the children got older, rising by almost a full hour for each year of age.

The data showed 8-year-olds consuming an average of 4 hours and 28 minutes daily, with that number increasing to 8 hours and 14 minutes per day in 12-year-olds.

While boys and girls did not differ in the amount of media consumed, they did vary in the type of media. Boys tended to spend more time on video games.

They also found that media multitasking (using more than one type of media at the same time) increased with age. With a score of 0, meaning that the child is using only one form of media at a time, they found that, at age 8, the average score was 0.66.

By the age of 12, the score increased to 1.61.

There was no difference in multitasking between boys and girls.

So, what does this added screen time mean for children?

“We know through research the various ways that excessive, problematic, and addictive screen use can impact children’s neurological and psychological development,” said Anthony Anzalone, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Stony Brook Medicine.

“For instance, studies have shown lower brain development in pre-school kids who had increased screen time. Similarly, 8- to 11-year-olds who exceed screen time recommendations generally scored lower on cognitive assessments,” he added.

Anzalone further noted that many patients he encounters are motivated by a fear of missing out.

He said this worries him, because it takes away from children being able to pay attention to tasks. It takes a considerable amount of mental effort to reengage with what you are doing, he explained.

“Think of your screen use like a diet. A little bit of a snacking (screen use) isn’t problematic, but overindulging is going to translate into future health problems,” he said.

Anzalone added that social media also creates a “paradox of boredom.” Because it’s readily available, we never have to be bored, but at the same time, we have a lower threshold for dealing with boredom.

“So when we’re faced with a challenging or boring task, it’s very easy for us to give in to the alluring siren’s call of social media,” he said.

It can also worsen anxiety if a person stays up late talking to people online rather than getting adequate sleep.

However, it’s not all bad news when it comes to screen time, according to Alice Good, PhD, a senior lecturer in human computer interaction and research methods at the School of Computing at the University of Portsmouth.

“The internet opens up opportunities never before available, including the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, enabling children to become independent learners,” Good said.

She explained that social media can enable a sense of belonging for children, allowing them to feel socially connected, even while they are physically disconnected.

In addition, she said that video games can improve visual and mental skills.

Good said screen time is not intrinsically bad for children. But, she said, it’s important to understand that there are different types of screen time. Parents need to be aware of the impact that these types can have on children’s behavior and well-being.

“As parents [try] to manage their child’s screen time, it is fundamental that screen time isn’t at the detriment of social interaction within the family and getting enough sleep and exercise,” Good said.

Anzalone said research indicates that limiting, but not eliminating, social media use to about 30 minutes per day has been shown to provide “significant gains” in psychological well-being, including areas like loneliness and depression.

He recommended the use of apps, like Appdetox, selfcontrol, and stayfocused, to limit screen time.

He further recommended trying to start and end the day without any devices or social media.

Also, having set times when no devices are used and screen free zones in your household can help. He suggested no cell phones at the dinner table is a good idea.

Anzalone said you can also follow guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan to help your children set limits. This website allows you to create a detailed plan that you can share with your family.

Finally, Anzalone said parents and educators can work together to train children in how screen use affects mental health.

“We need to talk to our children, not only about the birds and the bees, but also about the Wi-Fi and 5Gs,” he concluded.