When I found out I was going to become a dad a few years ago, I grew obsessed with reading everything I could find on how to raise successful kids.

If there's one piece of advice I heard over and over, it's this: Screen time is probably bad for children, so limit it to the maximum extent possible.

Now, a new study from the United Kingdom, published in the journal Child Development, says that advice could be completely outdated--largely because it disregards the degree to which digital screen use has become ubiquitous in the modern world.

We will get to the contents of the study below. But first, let's acknowledge how frustrating this is. As a parent, you want to do the right things for your kids, and you probably go to great lengths at times to achieve them.

So it would be nice to hear a little consensus--and not to be told that the battle you just fought with your two-year-old over whether she could watch Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood was for naught.

Fortunately, I think you can likely view this study as complementary to what we've always been told, instead of undercutting it. So here are the details.

20,000 families

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University wanted to test whether "a moderate amount of screen time," defined as one to two hours per day, might actually prove beneficial to children aged two to five.

This followed a previous study that the same group had done testing the effects of a comparable amount of screen time for teenagers.

Their method was to use data from 20,000 interviews with parents, in order to figure out the relationship between screen time and well-being. They focused on three attributes: (a) emotional resilience, (b) curiosity and (c) positive affect.

Net result: they found no real net benefit to reducing screen time. Children with less screen time did show slightly higher levels of resilience, but "this was balanced by lower levels of positive affect."

The results were basically the same for both young children and teenagers, according to the researchers.

"Our findings suggest that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children's psychological wellbeing," said the study's lead author, Dr Andrew Pryzbylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute.

Can't put the genie back in the bottle

The research is largely prompted by much-cited (even by me) guidance on screen time from the American Association of Pediatrics from 2016. Notably, that AAP report did away with an even stricter rule from 1999, which had been, "no screen time at all" for children under 18 months.

But Pryzbylski said this new study suggests even the more liberal AAP guidance might not really deliver many benefits. 

"The authors found the AAP guidelines themselves to be based on out-of-date research, conducted before digital devices had become so ingrained into everyday life," the University of Oxford said in a statement. "As a result of this time lapse, they are becoming increasingly difficult to justify and implement."

It's simply too late to "put the digital genie back in the bottle," said Pryzbylski's coauthor, Dr. Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University. So, "it is incumbent on researchers to conduct rigorous, up-to-date research."

Published on: Feb 12, 2018