"Young Children Are Spending More Time in Front of Small Screens"

The title of a news article must accurately reflect its content. "Young Children Are Spending More Time in Front of Small Screens" is the title of an article posted on NPR. In this case, the title is quite accurate: Children are indeed exposed to small screens as "98 percent of homes with children now have a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone". The survey made by CommonSense finds that usage of smart devices by children under 8 has skyrocketed from 5 minutes per day in 2011 to 48 minutes per day in 2017.

Above copied from CommonSense

Whether this trend is a good reason to worry about requires a deeper appreciation of what the title really says. The title does not say, "Young Children Are Spending More Time in Front of Screens". Missing the word "Small" in "Small Screens" changes what the news is about. In fact, the survey finds that the total screen time has barely changed from 2 hours and 16 minutes per day in 2011 to 2 hours and 19 minutes per day in 2017. Therefore, what is really happening is that children are switching from one medium to small screen. Children are in fact watching less television, DVD's, computer and video games. This is where the dramatic increase in smart phone usage is coming from. Again, whether this should be a concern is not clear from research.

Inspecting the use of screens with family income as a factor, another trend becomes apparent:

Above copied from CommonSense

In the United States, family income is not a barrier at all to screen use. In fact, children from lower-income families use technology far greater than children from rich families as shown in the above graph. Of course, this means less time spent on everything else. Less time is perhaps spent on face-to-face interactions and physical activity. In fact there is already less time spent reading or being read to everyday (The following are percentages of 0- to 8-year-olds who read/are read to every day):

Income Lower (<$30,000) 40%
Middle ($30,000 to $75,000) 54%
Higher (>$75,000) 65%

What the children do with their screen time is obviously important to consider as well. Are they text messaging? Are they watching videos with content inappropriate for young children? Are they reading Wikipedia? Are they simply surfing through social media? Are they playing video games? Are they watching a movie?

In the United States, parents think that young children do benefit from screen time:

Above copied from CommonSense

There are harms associated with screen use. Pediatricians for instance have raised the harmful effects of screen use near bedtime on a child's sleep. Screen use near bedtime becomes more frequent with handheld devices. The loss of physical activity is another obvious concern, but since overall screen time has not really changed, this has been a problem since the arrival of the television. The loss in social interactions may actually be less if parents and children are doing the media activity together although the switch from big screen to small screen may lessen the co-use of media.

The study from CommonSense leaves us with the following insightful conclusion:

Content has repeatedly been shown to be a major factor in how media affect learning and development. In short, this survey should not be read as a judgment on the quality of children’s time with media; rather, it is a snapshot of how media and technology are infused into daily life. Additional experimental and qualitative work is essential to better understanding the full implications of children’s media use. 

In other words, first, as parents, we need to know what our children are doing with these screens.