When parents limit screen time, kids behave, sleep, and test better

Since the average kid is in front of a screen more than 40 hours a week, researchers say even small limits on screen time can reap multiple health benefits.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Limiting screen time reaps benefits
Researchers at Iowa State University say the benefits of limiting screen time are small and not obvious, but that they compound over time. Iowa State University

With kids in the US clocking in screen time like it's a full-time job -- they spend on average seven hours a day in front of some sort of screen -- researchers at Iowa State University decided to investigate what sort of effects, if any, parental monitoring of all that screen time might have.

What they found may seem obvious, but they say it's actually difficult for parents to see the benefits.

First, the obvious: After analyzing the media habits of more than 1,300 4th and 5th graders over a seven-month period in Iowa and Minnesota, researchers found that when parents monitor their kids' screen time, those kids spend less time in front of a screen and less time exposed to violent media.

What's less obvious, they write this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is what happens next: In small (and thus subtle) increments, kids get more sleep, perform better in school both academically and behaviorally, and register lower body mass indexes and fewer obesity risks. But because parents don't always see these effects, obvious though they may be, they don't always enforce less screen time.

"As parents, we don't even see our children get taller and that's a really noticeable effect," Douglas Gentile, lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State, said in a school news release. "With media, what we're often looking for is the absence of a problem, such as a child not gaining weight, making it even more difficult to notice."

Pointing to a recent study finding that the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with different media, while older kids and teens are clocking in more than 11 hours a day, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their kids' media exposure entirely when kids are younger than 2 and keep it under 2 hours a day for all other kids. The organization also suggests that parents model good "media diets" by being moderate and selective in what they watch as well.

Still, researchers at Iowa State say the onus should also be on pediatricians to urge parents and kids to reduce all this screen time. "Hopefully, this study will give pediatricians a better sense of efficacy that it's worth taking the time to talk to parents," Gentile added. "Even if doctors only influence 10 percent of the parents, that's still millions of children having much better health outcomes as a result."