How Does Screen Time Affect Your Child’s Learning?

By Dr. Raymond Huntington

Technology is an integral part of life, dominating the way we communicate, learn, work and more. Today’s children spend a lot of time on smartphones and computers, leaving many parents to wonder about the impact of all that screen time.  So how exactly does screen time affect your child's learning and development? 

The Positive Effects of Screen Time 

Starting with the good, there’s no question that access to digital media has positives for students of all ages. Technology opens up worlds of opportunity to learn and research. Here are just a few of its many benefits:  

  • Technology and apps aid in learning. There’s an app for everything, whether your child is learning to read or practicing algebra concepts. Technology stimulates learning in new and highly effective ways. It can make challenging topics more digestible and fun to learn. And smartphones can enhance learning with their many tools and functions. 
  • The internet makes it easy to access new information. A quick Google search can help your child discover just about anything. They can acquire information, learn how to solve a math problem, read both sides of an argument, and get answers to questions. 
  • Social media can bring people together. Children often use social media to communicate and connect with others. They can keep in touch with friends when physically apart and rely on social media to connect with classmates about school and homework.  

The Negative Effects of Screen Time 

While there are definitely advantages of technology, screen time impacts children’s brains and behavior. Here are some of the negative effects of screen time on children and their learning:  

  • Decreased focus – Frequent use of digital devices can make it increasingly more difficult for children to maintain focus on things like homework. For students who already struggle with focus (due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), the always-on, always-available nature of digital activities can exacerbate these attention issues. 
  • Distraction during class – Many teachers today make it a policy that students’ phones must be stowed in their backpacks during class—and for good reason. Devices can be highly distracting, with social media notifications and text messages popping up when your child is supposed to be paying attention. 
  • Disrupted sleep – Blue light-emitting screens can suppress the secretion of melatonin, a hormone produced by the brain in response to darkness that helps people sleep. The nighttime routine should not include smartphone use or watching television, as this can cause your child to stay awake longer. That sleep disruption can lead to tiredness (and inattention) during the daytime while at school. 
  • Loss of interest in other things – Like many enjoyable activities, use of digital devices can be all-consuming—and difficult for some children to stop doing. For many, screen use is reported to create a release of dopamine, a chemical that makes people happy. That means children want to continue watching that video or playing that game, often choosing screen time over other activities they like. 
  • Struggles with prioritization Too much screen time can make it difficult for children to control themselves when they need to. Even when they know they should be doing something else (e.g., homework), your child might find it hard to put the smartphone down and refocus. Of course, this can lead to other problems too, like deceptive behavior about screen use and not enough sleep. 

Type of Screen Time Matters 

Many experts suggest that certain types of screen time lead to more positive outcomes than others. Active screen time that engages your child in some sort of mental or physical activity is much better than passive screen time, which requires little thought or creativity and is more consumptive in nature.  

So, when your child’s screen time involves them interacting with the real world or using their brain, you can feel better about it—as long as it is an appropriate amount of screen time. A few examples of active screen time:  

  • Using an educational app to learn math facts (as suggested by the teacher) 
  • Creating a class presentation for YouTube 
  • Creating a project to present in class with pictures, video and other media
  • Watching conversational videos for a foreign language class 

While it’s okay if your child sometimes enjoys a little “mindless” screen time, do your best to minimize it. Passive screen time can be detrimental to your child’s creativity and take up far more of their time than it should.  

Limiting Screen Time for Children 

It’s impossible to completely eliminate screen time from your child’s life, and computers, televisions and smartphones do have many valuable benefits. Like most things in life, it’s best to encourage moderation. A few tips:  

  • Set limits. Set rules about screen time use, such as screen-free time during homework and after 9:00 p.m. Help your child establish good homework habits that incorporate short screen time breaks but keep your child on task. 
  • Set a good example. Show your child through your daily actions that you enjoy other things aside from screen time, such as exercise, time with friends, reading and other activities. Remind your child that screen time can be beneficial, but too much passive screen time is not. 
  • Use technology to augment learning. There are all kinds of tools, apps and games that encourage children to develop their critical thinking skills and further their interests. A reasonable amount of screen time can actually help your child reinforce classroom learning, gain new skills and further their passions. 
  • Remember that healthy screen time habits are a good way to communicate. Smartphones, social media and email allow family and friends to stay connected even when physically apart. With school, your child can take advantage of this to collaborate with or get help from classmates. 

Screen time is a hot topic these days, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Not all screen time is bad, and many children develop healthy screen time habits with the help of supportive parents. If your child struggles with this and it is impacting their learning or study habits, call Huntington at 1-800 CAN LEARN. We can help your child develop positive time management skills and study routines to help them be successful in school.