The Nature of Things·Article

Screen time can sometimes be good for kids, says new research

From video games to video chats, there are some benefits to kids spending time on screens

From video games to video chats, there are some benefits to kids spending time on screens

(Shutterstock)

Kids spend a lot of time glued to their screens. One study found students in grades 7 to 12 are spending up to seven hours a day on them. During lockdown, that average skyrocketed. In Kids vs. Screens, a documentary from The Nature of Things, biologist and science journalist Dan Riskin meets parents who wonder how all that time on digital technology is affecting their children's development and mental health.

But it's not all negative news: some new research is looking at the benefits of screen time.

Video chats with family can help kids learn

Parents have a lot of worries these days, but a virtual visit with grandparents shouldn't be one of them. While pediatric guidelines recommend zero screen time for children under two, they make an exception for family video chats. 

Social distancing is making it almost impossible for family members to visit with little ones, and digital dates via apps like Skype and FaceTime have become lifelines for staying connected. 

Now, researchers are discovering a video chat isn't just an emotional boost, it can be good for a toddler's development too.

Developmental psychologist Lauren Myers at Lafayette Kids Lab in Easton, Penn., has spent years studying the cognitive benefits from live video interactions with loved ones. Though she emphasizes the best learning experiences involve face-to-face interactions and real-world play, in a world of rapidly changing technology, there can be some positive effects for young children.

In the Grandparenting in the Digital Age project, Myers and colleagues are researching how infants make and maintain online relationships with grandparents.

Here's Myers in her lab at Lafayette College with her daughter Dena and Nonna and Grandad on screen:

Kids vs. Screens: Benefits of Screentime

2 years ago
Duration 1:23
Developmental psychologist Lauren Myers discusses the benefits of children chatting with family over screens and how playing or reading over video chats can help their development.

Myers has found that it's not so much chatting with grandparents that children enjoy — it's playing with them! Kids tend to respond well when both parties can interact with toys or read books on either side of the screen. 

In Australia, the Western Sydney University's BabyLab is also looking at video chat interaction and how to optimize that connection. Researchers there have shared some tips for parents and grandparents, like incorporating video calls into routine activities like meals or bathtime to reduce the stress of finding a time to call. They suggest making funny faces and hand gestures, as well as blowing kisses and dancing and exercising together. Trying out a new filter or background can also make it more interesting for younger kids.                               

Screen time can benefit kids with autism

Digital devices can make immense positive differences in the lives of kids with special needs or disorders like autism. About one in 66 Canadian kids between the ages of five and 17 has autism, which is marked by communication problems, difficulty with social interactions and a tendency to repeat patterns of behaviour.

For kids and teens with autism, screen time can be an important tool to help them communicate, develop social skills, enhance learning and alleviate anxiety. And those benefits may outweigh any possible downsides of too much screen time.

Researchers at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital are studying the impact of screen time on these children. In preliminary findings, they found kids with autism use technology more than kids without autism, most often to play games and watch videos. 

The research suggests kids with autism may find technology easier to interact with since it's more predictable than real-life social interactions. 

Kids and video games 

Excessive time spent on social media has been linked to depression in studies on teens and screens, but some research has shown gaming can have upsides. 

One Montreal study followed nearly 4,000 adolescents for six years and found time spent playing games online didn't contribute to depressive symptoms. In fact, researchers found the average gamer wasn't socially isolated and playing online can make teens happier. 

Parents might be worried about grades slipping due to the amount of time kids spend playing video games. But a study that looked at more than 3,000 European children, who spent anywhere from one hour to more than five hours a week playing video games online, showed those who spent a lot of time playing video games often performed well intellectually and academically.

Video games can be tools for social and emotional learning — even helping to build empathy. With the physical separation brought on by the pandemic, video games can help children stay in touch with each other and provide a social outlet. 

But parents still need to monitor the games their kids play to ensure they are age-appropriate and check in with them about their experience.

'Quaranteens': The kids are all right

American psychologist Jean Twenge is well-known for her research on social media's effect on teen mental health. Over the past months, as our social lives have moved online, Twenge wanted to find out how the lockdown was affecting adolescents' mental health. She surveyed 1,523 teens between May and July — and was surprised by the results. 

Despite the social upheaval, Twenge found that perhaps the kids are all right. According to the survey, teens have been sleeping more and spending more time eating family meals and talking to their parents. 

Twenge believes these changes at home have helped teens cope, despite their concerns about financial stress, parents losing their jobs, and fears over COVID-19. The survey also found teens were using technology differently, spending more time chatting with friends online with fewer solitary moments scrolling through social media. 

Watch Kids vs. Screens on The Nature of Things.

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