Pediatricians tell parents young kids shouldn't have more than an hour a day of screen time. Meanwhile tech titans like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were even stricter with their own kids' tech use. Both sets of experts worried that too much time in front of devices would crowd out more important activities like social and academic development. Are they right to be concerned?

There is evidence that more screen time is correlated with worse grades and more anxiety among kids, but as many have pointed out, it could just be that young people who are unhappy or struggling with school retreat to their screens. If screen time is doing children lasting harm, you'd think that you'd see some sort of negative effects later in life too.

But when Swiss scientists recently surveyed 1,100 freshman at a large, diverse American university about how much time they'd spent staring at screens as kids, and then followed the students' academic performance at college, surprising patterns emerged.

Stricter rules mean lower grades?

In general, when Eszter Hargittai and Drew Cingel, the two researchers behind the study, compared kids whose parents followed the example of Gates and Jobs and strictly limited tech use with those whose parents had a more laissez faire attitude, they found no difference. Kids who were allowed to self-regulate their screen time got just as good grades as those whose parents closely controlled their activity.

That, in itself, might make people sit up and wonder if all those fights over the iPad are worth it, but that's actually not the most surprising finding. When Hargittai and Cingel dug deeper, asking students the rationale behind their parents' rules, they discovered that young people whose parents explicitly stated they were limiting tech to boost academic achievement actually did worse when they got to college. That was true even when the researchers controlled for the possibility that parents who set strict rules were simply responding to kids who were already struggling in school.

"Parents normally set these rules to promote their children's scholastic development and to make sure that they invest enough time in schoolwork. But that evidently can also backfire," commented Hargittai. But why exactly? The study can't say definitively, but I emailed Hargattai to see what hypotheses she might have.

"One possibility would be that such parents also create other rules or different contexts for their children while they are home studying through high school, but once they are at college, that larger context changes," she diplomatically responded.

Let me restate that more bluntly: parent who carefully control their kids' tech use might have a more general tendency towards helicopter parenting, and once their kids get to college and experience a taste of freedom and responsibility, they can't handle it. With no one looking over their shoulder, some kids can't force themselves to put down their phones and study.

This is only a guess, of course, and more research is needed, but it's an idea that certainly jives with the complaints of some college administrators that many coddled freshman lack basic life skills, like time management and the ability to make yourself to read that incredibly boring organic chemistry textbook.

Striking the right balance

While these results might make you reconsider strict screen time rules all the way through  high school, no one, Hargattai included, suggests letting your two year old binge watch YouTube trash all day. Instead, she recommends parents carefully consider the tradeoffs and balance the positive and negative consequences of tech. Here are a few specifics:

  • Not all screen time is the same. "Lots of tech-related activities can be beneficial for children such as ones where they are in touch with their friends or ones (including games) where they develop strategies and bolster creativity. Restricting such activities may not be a good idea," Hargattai points out. Yet another night of aimless texting, in other words, demands a different response than your kid and her best friend editing that movie they shot on their iPhones in the backyard.

  • Be particularly thoughtful with girls. It's a sad fact that many girls still think of computers and tech careers as "for boys." Parents who are particularly anti-tech with their daughters can end up inadvertently reinforcing that stereotype. "It is important that parents not approach their daughters' restriction in ways that scares them away from technology," Hargatti stresses. Other research by her suggests parents of girls are more likely to stress privacy and safety concerns when restricting tech, for instance, so keep an eye out for double standards and how you balance benefits and dangers when discussing tech with girls.

  • Use tech together. "Parents should spend time with their children using technologies together so that they can teach them about issues such as safety and privacy without scaring away their children from the beneficial potential of digital media," Hargattai concludes.