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Family, Screen Time Tied to Kids' Success: Study

By Jennifer Dobner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Sept. 1, 2014 -- Here's a back-to-school pop quiz for parents: How much do you think your child's school grades or emotions are tied to whether you're sitting down to dinner together?

The answer: More than you might think.

The amount of time kids spend in front of screens -- on computers, tablets and smart phones -- also plays a role, as do parenting styles in the home.

All of it can contribute to a child's academic success, sleep problems, emotional stability, focus, and behaviors commonly linked to ADHD, a new study shows.

In the Learning Habit Study, researchers used an online survey to gather data from families with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade to look at connections between family time, parenting styles, and screen time with a range of child behaviors.

Among their findings:

  • Family time, including family dinners, playing board games, and attending religious services together, resulted in less screen time for kids and helped boost their social and emotional coping skills, have better focus, and do better academically.
  • Traditional parenting styles -- those that discipline when kids misbehave or underperform -- had a negative impact on academic achievement. It left kids with more social and emotional challenges, focus and sleep problems, and a 10% higher rate of symptoms commonly linked to ADHD.
  • Parenting styles that rely on positive reinforcement and are firm, but supportive, had the opposite effect. They contributed overall to higher rates of healthy outcomes, including a 3% lower rate of children with ADHD symptoms.
  • The amount of screen time a child has each day can quickly add up to have a bad effect on behavior, emotions, and academics, even though it can increase the amount of time some children spend doing homework. Researchers found grades began to decline steadily after just 45 minutes of screen time and dropped even more significantly after 2 hours. More screen time led to greater sleeping problems, too.

The study will be published Tuesday in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Message for Parents

The good news for parents is they can easily make positive changes at home, says Robert Pressman, PhD. He's the director of research at the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology and the study's lead author.

Have regular family dinners, for example. They tend to happen at expected times and include conversation and information sharing. Parents can also shift their own habits and parenting styles in response to the study's findings.

"These are all things that parents can do to make a difference," Pressman says. "I think it's going to change everything in terms of how we are going to interact with patients," he adds. "We have hard data now that we didn't have before. As a clinician, I know that I will have a greater impact."

Study Details

Data for the study was gathered over 60 days beginning in September 2013. More than 46,000 parents from 4,500 U.S. cities participated in the study, although fewer than half -- 21,175 -- completed the 108-question survey. Only completed responses were used by the study team.

In addition to Pressman, the team included researchers from Brown University's Alpert Medical School, the Children's National Medical Center and Brandeis University. WebMD was one of the survey sites, along with the Huffington Post, Parents magazine, and the National PTA.

Second Opinion

Sam Goldstein, a Utah-based psychologist and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Attention Disorders, says the study should provide parents, educators, and doctors with valuable information. He says some of the data supports other earlier, smaller studies.

Still, Goldstein questions the study's methods. An incentive was given to the parents to participate. They were entered into a prize drawing for a gift card, and that could have influenced the survey responses, he says. Although he hasn't yet seen whole study, he also questions the large sample size.

Melissa Nemon, a study statistician and a senior research associate at Brandeis University, believes the Learning Habit Study findings will impact not just individuals and families, but also the wider community, where personal accounts about the impacts of parenting styles and screen time have long been part of the conversation.

"On some level, we've all been having this narrative publicly for a while. For example, we know too much screen time isn't good," Nemon says. "What this study does is lend actual foundation and credibility to a lot of these public discussions."

Eventually, that may translate into public policies and community programming through nonprofit organizations that will support wider efforts to raise healthy children, she says.

"There are plenty of community groups and organizations focused on youth issues and programs looking at ways to improve youth outcomes but you're not going to get grants or anybody to support you if there is not credible data," she says. "This is the kind of data they need."

SOURCES: Learning Habit Study. Robert M. Pressman, Ph.D.; director of research, New England Center of Pediatric Psychology. Melissa L. Nemon, Ph.D.; senior research associate at Brandeis University. Sam Goldstein, Ph. D,; editor-in-chief Journal of Attention Disorders; adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Utah School of Medicine; affiliate research professor of psychology, George Mason University.

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