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Overall leisure screen time may not impact the academic performance of children and teens. But time spent watching television or playing video games could. Getty Images
  • Watching television and playing video games may affect students’ grades, but more research is needed looking at how multi-screen use might impact learning.
  • The study found that time spent on social media was not associated with an impact to grades.
  • Experts point out that more time on smartphones means less time reading or studying textbooks.

Faced with students distracted from learning by their cell phones, many schools in the United States have banned phones altogether.

But how much of an effect do cell phones — and other electronic devices — really have on how well students do in school?

A new paper suggests that overall leisure screen time may not impact the academic performance of children and teens. But time spent watching television or playing video games could.

Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, a pediatrician in Carlsbad, California, and author of “Family Fit Plan: A 30-Day Wellness Transformation,” thinks the findings match what you might expect.

“Spending more time in passive, noneducational activities such as watching TV and playing video games is associated with decreased academic performance,” said Muth, an American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, who was not involved in the new study.

But the real answer is a bit more nuanced — something Muth and the authors of the paper point out.

“Not all screen-time activities are the same,” said Muth. “The intent of the activity matters.”

So binge-watching YouTube videos or scrolling mindlessly through an Instagram feed is likely different from reading in-depth news articles or doing research on authoritative websites.

In the new paper, researchers combined and analyzed data from 30 previous screen-time studies, what’s known as a meta-analysis.

The paper was published September 23 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

The researchers found no link between overall leisure screen time and academic performance of children and adolescents.

However, students who spent more time watching television or playing video games were more likely to do poorly in school.

For television viewing, overall performance and success in language and mathematics were affected. For video games, it was overall grades.

Dr. David Fagan, vice chair of pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, who was not involved in the study, was not surprised by these results.

However, he pointed out that the way these studies are designed doesn’t allow researchers to show that certain types of screen time directly affect academic performance — only that there’s some connection.

The authors of the new paper also found no link between academic performance and cell phone use, and mixed results for internet surfing. Fewer studies, though, have looked specifically at these types of screen time.

They are also more variable activities than “vegging out” in front of TV or gaming for hours.

Although the authors found no link between overall screen time and academic performance, they point to several earlier studies that found that screen time may affect success in school, especially excessive screen time.

They suggest that this may be because the studies they analyzed varied greatly in how they measured screen time — type of device used, content being viewed, purpose of the screen time, and the social or educational context.

Going forward, researchers will need to better track how children and teens use screens.

“The mobile phone is really the ‘all-in-one’ device,” said Fagan. “[This] deserves more research, given the significant amount of time that adolescents are using smartphones to access social media.”

Many reasons have been proposed for how television might affect school performance, from impacting student’s ability to pay attention to causing behavioral problems.

One factor that applies to all types of electronic devices is displacing activities that can boost students’ grades.

“Consider the ‘opportunity costs’ of kids spending so much time on screens and not doing other activities that are likely to be much more fruitful for their overall development and success,” said Muth, “like reading books, socializing in person with friends, engaging in physical activity and/or sports, and pursuing other extracurriculars.”

Other things can also affect students’ grades, including the home environment, parental support, and socioeconomic status. Less than half of the studies in the new paper looked at these kinds of factors.

Parents — and young people — also need to keep in mind that screen time doesn’t affect just grades.

“This study looks at academic performance only,” said Muth, “and not a lot of other areas that can be impacted by screen time such as sleep, physical activity or overall health status.”

Fagan said for conditions like obesity, the “cumulative effect” of screen time may be most important.

Although more research needs to be done to know how screen time affects the health and development of children and teens, parents can still help their children develop healthy screen-time habits.

For this, Muth recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan tool.

“My family used this to come up with our own screen-time plan,” said Muth. “For older kids and adolescents, this is a great way to get buy-in, which makes it is easier to stick to the plan.”