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The Opportunity Cost of Screen Time

The Opportunity Cost of Screen Time

by Heather Lozano, Youth Librarian, MLIS

The Negative Impact of Screen Time on Children

The siren call of screens is hard to avoid for adults and children alike. Bright colors and catchy music can be entertaining, but time consuming.

Many parents question whether time is the only thing wasted with screens- or are there more consequential repercussions resulting from too much time in front of a screen? These concerns have merit. Research has indicated screen time can have negative effects on children’s overall development.

A huge concern with screen time revolves around what the screen is replacing. Studies have shown, if children are watching interactions between characters rather than engaging with their peers or family for extended time, parents will see a decrease in their child’s Emotion Understanding.

A 2019 study published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology explains increased interactions with televisions tablets, and the like could “affect the amount of time children may spend [practicing] skills of recognizing emotions in others, experiencing emotions when interacting with others and being talked to about the nature, causes, and consequences of different emotions by their parents”.

Emotion Understanding is a benchmark of development; developing this skill is important for school and familial relationship building that will carry on later in life. Children without this skill set will be at a disadvantage both in their education and workplaces, as relationship building, empathy and communication are foundational to success- and all these hinge on an individual’s ability to understand the emotions within themselves and those around them.

While screen time can present negative emotional results, this pastime can also cause setbacks physically. When screen time replaces physical play, children will not reap the benefits movement offers growing brains and bodies. Fine and gross motor skills are both of concern when children are primarily engaged with screens.

The Journal of Sport and Health Science reports, children who engage in excessive screen time at ages 4 and 5 later perform poorly on motor proficiency tests when they are 7. 

Gross motor movement also sees a decline when children spend a majority of their time sitting in front of a screen. Moving our bodies within a space requires practice. Sedentary activities lack the physical engagement needed for developing bodies and that lack can have long term effects.

The use of screens can be detrimental to the health of children when screens replace interaction or play, entertainment can replace growth and development. Televisions and tablets have their place for occasional fun but should not substitute real life engagement with the big world around children who have a natural curiosity and desire to discover.

The Benefit of Books

Books are a window into the big world around us. The words and pictures on the pages can even create worlds that don’t yet exist, even in our imaginations.

Reading to children can offer the opportunity to explore these worlds, but reading also offers a lot of long term benefits as well! Picture books offer rich language, visual cues and rare words- a treasure trove for brain development.

Reading out loud gifts your child:

Phonological Awareness - differentiating the small sounds that make up words.
Narrative skills- imagining a story and talking about it from beginning, to, to end.

Letter knowledge - letters are symbols that have meaning.
Print motivation- willingness to push through the difficult task of reading.

Print awareness - what books are and how they work

Vocabulary - Picture books contain 50% more unusual and exciting vocabulary words than those spoken in an average hour of adult prime time television.

Executive function skills - this helps their ability to sit still and listen later in life!

Most importantly reading to your child is bonding! Reading creates positive connotations with both books and the caregiver providing the story.

As you read you offer your child readiness for their future. In fact, keeping books in the home is as important a factor as parental education in determining future success in a child, according to a 20-year study led by Mariah Evans, University of Nevada, Reno associate professor of sociology and resource economics.

For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average. (Science Daily)

Books you own or those brought in from the library spark a child’s mind and open doors for their future. Reading brings worlds to life for your child’s imagination and helps prepare them for the real world awaiting them in their future.


When Screens are a Must

The year 2020 has not turned out how anyone has planned. Quarantines and shut-downs have turned even the most well laid plans on their head. Many parents are home and finding themselves and their child attached to screens at an increase they never could have predicted.

Zoom school, and working from home while caring for children is new territory for many parents and screens are a part of making this arrangement function. Many wonder if this increase time in front of technology will have a negative outcome.

Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is the author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 screen-time recommendations.  Radesky explains, media use “has an opportunity to be remarkably different and really meaningful for families…People are using screens to check on neighbors, organize help and talk to family members and friends they so dearly miss…Challenge your children to practice ‘tech self-control’ and turn off tech themselves” she said on twitter (Washington Post).

With the change in environment comes a change in the rules. Parents can make screen time a meaningful experience in a few ways.

First, it is important to ensure screens do not replace physical activity, imaginative play, reading, and social interaction.

Next, engaging with children while they use tablets or watch tv can make the experience more enriching- ask questions, make predictions and celebrate with your child when they have a gaming success. 

Finally, practice safe tech. Help kids set their own boundaries revolving around tech time, and know what they’re watching and playing, and with whom. Talk about the dangers they could encounter online and how that is handled within your family values.

When tech replaces human interaction, movement and play it is no longer a helpful tool. Playing alongside your child and offering creative and engaging opportunities outside of screen time can counter the negative effects of screens on children. Reading picture books about the world around them can bring context and books about imaginary worlds can help them escape the four walls of home. 

Enhance children’s day with opportunities to create and explore the world with self guided activities to allow their minds rest from technology. Discuss what they’re seeing in their games and their imaginations, read and play; screen time can be just another tool in building your child’s future success.




Hauck, J. L., & Felzer-Kim, I. T. (2019). Time Spent in Sedentary Activity Is Related to Gross Motor Ability During the Second Year of Life. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 126(5), 753–763. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031512519858261

E. Kipling Webster, Corby K. Martin, Amanda E. Staiano. (2019) Fundamental motor skills, screen-time, and physical activity in preschoolers. Journal of Sport and Health Science 8:2, pages 114-121.


Skalická, V., Wold Hygen, B., Stenseng, F., Kårstad, S. B., & Wichstrøm, L. (2019). Screen time and the development of emotion understanding from age 4 to age 8: A community study. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 37(3), 427–443.