The rise of tablets and smartphones has completely transformed the way we live – in many ways for the better. However, the impact of screen time on children is a hotly debated topic, with many arguing that too much of it harms their psychological and physical health.

Some say that smartphones have destroyed a generation. Others that being glued to screens is as bad for children as eating junk food. Even worse, that screens are like “digital heroin”.

It’s no wonder that parents are worried. In a recent survey by the World Economic Forum, 71% of respondents said they believed digital media use could create problems for 8-11 year olds. A similarly high percentage was reported for other age groups.

But new research suggests that perhaps it’s not as bad as we might think – too much screen time does less harm to teenagers than skipping breakfast or not getting a good night’s sleep.

Image: REUTERS/Michael Kooren

Researchers from Oxford and Cardiff universities analysed how 120,000 15-year-olds in Britain felt after using digital technology, and how much time they spent on different devices.

Unsurprisingly, nearly all (99.9%) said that they used at least one type of digital technology on a daily basis. This included watching films and TV programmes, playing computer games, using the internet or smartphones for social networking and chatting.

The researchers drew the conclusion that spending more than a “moderate” amount of time on digital devices could have a negative impact on wellbeing. However, this effect was small – about a third as bad as the effect on wellbeing of a young person skipping breakfast or not getting a good night’s sleep.

In fact, up to a certain point, the teenagers’ wellbeing increased as their screen time increased. But there was a “tipping point” when the opposite became true.

Lead author Dr Andrew Przybylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, said: “Overall we found that modern use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may have advantages in a connected world unless digital devices are overused or interfere with schoolwork or after-school activities.”

How much is too much?

So the question remains, how much is too much? Parents looking for advice on how much screen time their children may be forgiven for getting confused.

Recent research by Cambridge University found that even an hour too much was associated with lower academic grades.

In the study, the 14 year olds said they spent four hours of their leisure time each day watching TV or using digital devices. But those who spent an hour more than that were more likely to get lower grades in their GCSEs.

In addition, too much technology too soon can impair brain development, hinder social skills and trigger an unhealthy reliance on the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides a high that can be addictive.

This discovery led one parent in the US state of Colorado to found nonprofit PAUS (Parents Against Underage Smartphones). The organization is lobbying state lawmakers to draft a law that would ban sales of smartphones to children under 13.

Children in the US spend an average of 263 minutes a day in front of a screen, rising to 391 minutes a day for teenagers.

Image: The Conversation

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that parents avoid smartphone, tablet, computer and TV use for children under two and limit it to no more than two hours for children over two, it relaxed these rules last year, advising parents to come up with their own “Family Media Use Plan”.

Similarly, recent advice from the UK government doesn’t specify an amount of time, rather a “Digital 5 A Day”, which includes screen time as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Yuhyun Park, head of iZ HERO digital citizenship initiative for children, recommends a seven-point family framework that helps parents manage screen time and children develop their own sense of self-control.

Image: iZ HERO digital citizenship initiative for children

Digital media as a positive influence

In his paper, Przybylski argues that while time spent on digital technologies has sparked widespread concerns about its negative effect on wellbeing, it’s an area that hasn’t been “rigorously studied”.

Recently, the former head of the UK government’s cybersecurity agency urged British children to spend more time online so they can “save the country”. He says that the UK is struggling to keep up with its digital rivals, and that children need to embrace and master the virtual world to avoid the country falling further behind.

Others say we are too quick to assume that all screen experiences are equally negative for kids, and that they’re replacing positive offline activities.

“We know that kids do all kinds of positive things with digital media, often in ways that support and are supported by ‘real-life’ activities – in ways similar to adults,” says Nathan Fisk, Assistant Professor of Cybersecurity Education at the University of South Florida.

“They go online to hang out with friends, catch up on events and seek out entertainment and information, just like anyone else.”