5 New Studies That Challenge Conventional Wisdom About Kids and Tech

A slew of recent research suggests parents should relax a bit about screen time.


This week, hordes of kids across the country are spending some of their Christmas break hours staring at screens. And hordes of parents are probably fretting that they shouldn't be letting them do this. That "screen time"—computer screen, TV screen, cellphone screen, etc.—is indiscriminately and insidiously dangerous for young minds.

These parents should relax.

Some research—and common sense—suggests ample screen time could be bad if it displaces other things, just as spending every waking hour on any one activity could be bad. But moderate screen time and occasional bursts of excessive screen time (say, during winter break) are probably harmless. So long as kids still generally find time for things like physical activity, schoolwork, and in-person socializing with family and peers, screen time per se simply shouldn't be a concern for most families.

That's not to say TV, TikTok, or Call of Duty will never be problematic. Some kids use things like these to escape feelings or situations they should be confronting. Some are extra susceptible to rude comments or risky suggestions.

But problematic tech use tends to reflect underlying issues, as Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson told Reason for this piece on algorithms. "Pathological technology use" isn't caused by technology—but because that's the most visible symptom, parents and politicians think "let's take the video games away, or Facebook or Instagram away, and everything will be resolved."

Besides, "screen time" can mean many, many different things. Parents would do better to fret less about the precise amount of time kids spend playing video games, watching TV, surfing social media, or what have you, and exert more interest in the nature of the content kids consume, create, and interact with.

Studies connecting childhood screen time to negative results don't often take the type of screen time into account. And press about these studies tends to confound causation and correlation, insisting that screen time is responsible for emotional, behavioral, or developmental issues that could be the factor of something else (absent parents, depression, etc.) that drives both more time in front of screens and the issue in question.

But there's also a lot of research challenging the doomsayers—it just doesn't tend to get as much media attention. To do our small part to help correct that, here are five recent studies that challenge conventional wisdom about kids and screens.

"Effects of screen exposure on young children's cognitive development: A review."

Published in Frontiers in Psychology, August 2022

Main takeaway: TV can be good for kids' cognitive development.

In this study, a team of researchers from the University of Portsmouth and France's Paris Nanterre University looked at the impact of screen exposure on early childhood cognitive development. To do so, they analyzed 478 studies published throughout the past two decades. While some studies linked early exposure to television with negative effects in children under age 3, watching TV was also linked to positive effects, depending on the type of media being viewed and the circumstances under which this viewing takes place.

"We're used to hearing that screen exposure is bad for a child and can do serious damage to their development if it's not limited to say less than an hour a day. While it can be harmful, our study suggests the focus should be on the quality or context of what a child is watching, not the quantity," said Eszter Somogyi of the University of Portsmouth in a statement. "Weak narrative, fast pace editing, and complex stimuli can make it difficult for a child to extract or generalise information. But when screen content is appropriate for a child's age, it's likely to have a positive effect, particularly when it's designed to encourage interaction."

Watching TV with a caregiver around can also make the experience more beneficial. "Watching television with your child and elaborating and commenting on what is viewed can help enhance their understanding of the content, reinforcing their learning during educational programs," said Somogyi. "Coviewing can also contribute to the development of their conversation skills and provides children with a role model for appropriate television viewing behavior."

Take a look at the full analysis for a deep dive into potential positive effects.

"Are mobile phone ownership and age of acquisition associated with child adjustment? A 5-year prospective study among low-income Latinx children"

Published in Child Development, September 2022

Main takeaway: The age at which adolescents get phones doesn't affect their grades, sleep habits, or moods.

In this study, researchers from Stanford Medicine followed a group of 250 children for five years, during a period in which most eventually got their first cellphone. "Instead of comparing phone-using kids with those who don't have phones at a single point in time, the scientists tracked the participants' well-being as they transitioned to phone ownership," notes Erin Digitale on the Stanford Medicine website.

Subjects ranged from 7 to 11 years old at the start of the study and 11 to 15 years old at the end. The average age at which they got their first cellphone was 11.6 years old.

But about a quarter had phones before they turned 11, and a quarter did not have phones yet at 12.6 years old. And neither earlier nor later phone acquisition was linked to negative outcomes.

"We found that whether or not the children in the study had a mobile phone, and when they had their first mobile phone, did not seem to have meaningful links to their well-being and adjustment outcomes," said lead author Xiaoran Sun. "There doesn't seem to be a golden rule about waiting until eighth grade or a certain age."

The researchers point out that individual children may still be adversely affected by phone ownership. "These are average trends on a population level," said Sun. "There can still be individual differences. It doesn't mean you can't take your kid's phone away if you think it's taking too much sleep time."

But there is no universal right or wrong age to give kids a cellphone. "These results should be seen as empowering parents to do what they think is right for their family," senior author Thomas Robinson said.

"Connection, Creativity and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022"

Published by the Pew Research Center, November 2022

The main takeaway: Teens see social media as having a positive effect on their lives.

Teenagers surveyed by the Pew Research Center paint a "nuanced picture of adolescent life on social media," Pew reports. "It is one in which majorities credit these platforms with deepening connections and providing a support network when they need it, while smaller – though notable – shares acknowledge the drama and pressures that can come along with using social media."

Pew conducted its survey of 1,316 American 13–17-year-olds in April and May 2022. The full report on the results—released last month—can be found here.

Eighty percent of the teens surveyed said social media makes them feel "more connected to what's going on in their friends' lives," while 71 percent said it offers them "a place where they can show their creative side," 67 percent said it provides them with "people who can support them through tough times," and 58 percent said it makes them feel "more accepted."

Teens do feel some anxiety because of social media. Nearly a third said it makes them feel like their friends leave them out of things, and 38 percent said it makes them feel "overwhelmed because of all the drama."

But most teens—59 percent—see social media as neither having a positive nor negative effect on their lives. Just 9 percent said it's mostly negative, while 32 percent said it's mostly positive.

Many teens also say that life on social media is better than their parents assume it is. Thirty-nine percent agreed that "teens' experiences on social media are better than what parents think," while 33 percent said their parents' views on this are about right and 27 percent said it's worse than parents think.

"Disconnection More Problematic for Adolescent Self-Esteem than Heavy Social Media Use: Evidence from Access Inequalities and Restrictive Media Parenting in Rural America"

Published in Social Science Research Review, August 2022

The main takeaway: The internet isn't driving low self-esteem in teens.

"Teens who are disconnected from today's technologies are more isolated from their peers, which can lead to problems," said Michigan State University's Keith Hampton, a professor in the school's Department of Media and Information and lead author of a study on how being disconnected from technology affects teen self-esteem.

Social media is often blamed for teenage anxiety, body image problems, and self-confidence issues. But self-esteem problems are common to teens no matter what, notes Hampton, who suggests looking beyond social media and screen time for a culprit.

"Disconnection is a much greater threat than screen time," he told MSU Today. In fact, screen time can actually be beneficial. "Social media and video games are deeply integrated into youth culture, and they do more than entertain. They help kids to socialize, they contribute to identity formation and provide a channel for social support," Hampton said.

For his study, Hampton and colleagues looked at data on 3,258 adolescents living in predominately rural areas of Michigan. Subjects spanned 15 school districts and 21 schools.

The researchers measured time spent consuming digital media (including streaming services, video games, social media, and other web outlets), watching TV, and engaging in various in-person activities (socializing with friends, participating in school clubs, hanging out with family, etc.). They also asked teens about how tightly their parents controlled their screen time, and about the technological access to the internet.

Being disconnected from the digital world—either because of spotty internet service or parental constraints—was a much better predictor of low self-esteem than time spent in front of screens.

"Heavy restrictive mediation practices have among the largest relationships to adolescent self-esteem, exceeded only by identifying as female," states the study. (Being a girl was the largest predictor of self-esteem issues, alas.) Heavy use of social media, the web, video games, or online videos "has a much smaller relationship to adolescent self-esteem," the study states. And "adolescents, especially boys, who have less than broadband, home Internet access tend to report self-esteem that is substantively lower than that what is experienced through heavy screen time on any new media."

"Isolation doesn't come from being online, it comes from being disconnected from those sources of entertainment and socialization that permeate teens' lives," Hampton told MSU Today. "For most teens, that's social media, video games and sharing the videos they watch online. It is often how teens get their information, communicate and share," said Hampton.

One potential issue here is a problem that frequently plagues tech panic studies, too: Parents of some groups (those who strictly control their teenagers' screen time, live in more remote areas, etc.) probably differ in significant ways from parents who don't fall into these categories. It could be these family differences that drive differences in self-esteem and socializing patterns, not the amount of time spent with digital media.

But even taking this into account, Hampton's study challenges some stereotypes about teen screen time. (For instance, the idea that heavy digital media consumption necessarily interferes with real-world bonding.) Teens who spent more time in front of screens also spent more in-person time socializing with family and friends.

"Perpetuating the myth that teens who spend more time on their devices spend less time with friends and family and that 'excessive' time online is harming most teens' mental health, does more harm than good," said Hampton. "When parents exert too much control over the time their teens spend on screens, they cut kids off from peers and the social support that protects mental health."

"Association of Video Gaming With Cognitive Performance Among Children"

Published in JAMA Network Open, October 2022

The main takeaway: Video games are good for kids, actually.

For this study, University of Vermont researchers looked at data on 2,217 children who took part in the national Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. Their aim: to explore links between time spent playing video games and certain aspects of cognitive performance.

Specifically, the researchers compared kids who said they played no video games to kids who reported playing at least 21 hours of video games per week. Kids were asked to perform various tasks related to response inhibition and working memory while being subjected to functional magnetic resonance imaging.

The gamers performed better on the cognitive tests and also showed altered signaling in parts of the brain linked to attention, visual processing, and memory processing. The researchers also found no significant difference between gamers and nongamers in terms of mental health.

Gamers "are less susceptible to attentional distraction and outperform [nongamers] on both selection-based and response-based processes, suggesting that enhanced attentional performance in [gamers] may be underpinned by a greater capacity to suppress or disregard irrelevant stimuli," write the researchers.

Of course, the study can't tell us whether playing video games causes these cognitive differences or whether these differences cause some people to either become avid gamers or to reject video games entirely. But it does suggest that fears about gaming ruining kids' memories, attention spans, etc., may be overblown.