The study, which reviewed and analyzed dozens of previous studies on the topic, found TV viewing and video game playing are the only two screen activities negatively associated with poor grades and test scores.
Surprisingly, no association was found between the total time that young people spend in front of electronic screens — including computers and smartphones — and their academic performance.
Of course, this study’s finding doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t limit their children’s overall screen time. The more time young people spend on computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs, video game and other screen-based devices, the more time they’re being sedentary and engaging in other activities (such as not getting enough sleep) that may put their health at risk.
It’s for that reason — not academic ones — that health experts, including those at the American Heart Association, recommend no more than one to two hours of recreational screen time per day for school-aged children. And for very young children — those aged 2 to 5 years — they urge parents to limit daily screen time to under an hour.
Screen time should be avoided altogether for younger children, they add.
Previous studies that investigated the relationship between screen time and academic performance have had mixed — and controversial — results. Some have found that spending two or more hours a day in front of a screen can negatively affect children’s grades, but others have found it has either no effect or even a positive one.
To try to resolve these conflicting findings, an international team of researchers, led by Mireia Adelantado-Renau from the University Jaume I in Castellon, Spain, decided to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of the existing research on the topic. They identified 5,599 studies published in 23 countries between 1958 and 2018 that had looked at the association between the time or frequency of screen media use and academic performance among children and/or teens.
Using strict criteria, the researchers narrowed down that list to 58 studies involving more than 480,000 children and teens aged 4 to 18.
The studies looked at various forms of media screen time, including computer use, smartphone use, television watching and video game playing. Academic performance was gauged by the students’ school grades (including, in some cases, their specific grades in language and mathematics) and standardized test results, as well as by other measures, such as academic failure.
When the data from the 58 studies was carefully analyzed, Adelantado-Renau and her colleagues found no evidence of an association between overall screen time and children’s performance in school. Only when they broke down the data by type of screen did such a link appear.
The analysis revealed that the more time young people spent watching television and/or playing video games, the greater the likelihood their grades suffered. Watching television was associated with lower language and math scores for both teens and younger children, as well as with lower overall grades for teens. Playing video games was also linked with lower composite grades, but primarily among teens.
Adelantado-Renau and her colleagues point out that their findings regarding television viewing concur with other studies.
“Previous research has suggested that television viewing replaces other activities such as physical activity, verbal interaction, studying, or sleeping … and reduces mental effort, … which might affect should performance,” they write. “In addition, excessive television viewing time among children has been shown to decrease attention and cognitive functioning and to increase behavioral problems and unhealthy eating habits, which may also impair academic outcomes.”
Limitations and implications
The studies included in this systematic review and meta-analysis were observational, and therefore can’t prove cause and effect.
The study comes with other caveats as well. The young people’s screen time was mainly determined by answers to questionnaires provided by either themselves or their parents — answers that may or may not have been accurate. Nor did the analysis take into account the purpose, content or context of the screen time.
Another limitation is the age of some of the studies used in the meta-analysis. Several went back to the 1980s, when children’s use of digital media was very different from what it is today.
For these and other reasons, Adelantado-Renau and her co-authors call for further research into the effects of all types of media screen time on academic performance.
In the meantime, they hope parents, educators and others will consider these latest findings when determining how much and what kind of screen time should be allocated to children and teens.
“Education and public health professionals should consider supervision and reduction as strategies for television viewing and video game playing to improve both the health status and academic performance of children and adolescents exposed to these activities,” they stress.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on JAMA Pediatrics’ website. Parents who wish to develop a healthy media plan for their families will find some useful tools at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ website.