A study recently published in the journal Plus one suggests that screen time is unlikely to be directly harmful to young children. The US study attracted global attention, as screen time is often accused of disrupting the healthy habits of our youth.
Advertised headlines “Screens are not as dangerous as you think”, “Screens really don’t hurt kids”, “Children are not harmed by spending a lot of time in front of a screen”, “Potential Benefits of Digital Screen Time” and “Children who are glued to the screens do not cause them anxiety”.
However, we must be wary of the health consequences, despite the absence of strong links between screen time and children’s health. The researchers suggested that screen time was not a direct cause of depression or anxiety and was related to better relationships with peers, but their findings came with qualifications. The study involved nearly 12,000 children ages nine to ten from 24 diverse sites in the United States.
A theme that arises from careful research on screen time and children. The negative effects are there, but they are too small to worry: “The observed small effect sizes suggest that longer screen time is unlikely to be directly harmful to 9- and 10-year-olds.” https://t.co/APoWIdzNWa
– Ethan Mollick (@emollick) September 9, 2021
Why worry about screen time?
Young people use screens more than ever. Average number of screen-based digital devices which is reportedly owned and used by children in Australia has reached 3.3 devices per child.
These devices include laptops, smartphones, televisions, tablets, gaming devices, and family computers. As in many Western nations, it is estimated that children use a mobile device or watch television during 3-4 hours a day and exceed health guidelines.
Polls they have found that nearly all high school students and two-thirds of elementary school students own a screen-based device. Children are spending at least one third of your day looking at the screens.
In Australia, teachers and parents have expressed concern that the rapid adoption of digital devices (including the use of social media) is having a negative impact on children’s physical activity and their ability to be empathetic and focus on learning tasks.
Most concerns are related to the fact that screen time is associated with depression, anxiety, self-esteem, social interactions and quality of sleep.
With children using screens so much at a young age, establishing a causal link between screen time and health outcomes has become more important than ever. Increased screen usage as a result of the pandemic has added urgency to this investigation.
What did this latest study investigate?
The American study investigated the relationship between screen time and children’s academic performance, sleep habits, peer relationships, and mental health.
Parents completed a screen time questionnaire, child behavior checklist, and anxiety statement scales (including sections on internalizing or externalizing problems and caring for children). They reported on their children’s grades in school, the quantity and quality of their sleep, family income and race.
Children independently completed a 14-item screen time questionnaire on different types of recreational media use on screens. They were also asked how many close friends they had.
I hope the ‘Screens = bad’ myth dies. What you do behind those screens is important.
The study of 12K children found no links to depression / anxiety. More screen time = closer friends.
– Miranda van Tilburg (@DrvanTilburg) September 16, 2021
The researchers found small associations between children’s screen time and declining quality of sleep, attention, mental health, and academic performance. These effects were not confirmed as directly caused by screen time.
Possible explanations for weak links between screen time and negative health impacts include:
- relying on parent reports
- screen time survey design
- measurement of social quality.
Parent reports have limitations
Most of the evaluation was based on parents being able to accurately report their children’s health behaviors. Surveys and questionnaires are usually completed more reliably by the target participantsunless they are unable to do so (for example, due to illness).
It can be difficult for adults correctly identify children’s behaviors, and parents reporting on a child can lead to many inaccuracies or less sensitive data associations. For example, it would be very difficult to report a child’s sleep disruptions without using a digital measuring device.
Parents are also confident in how much they see their child, the depth and frankness of their conversations, various family structures, shared interests, and conversations with teachers.
Survey design matters too
It is important that polls they are easy to understand and suitable for the participants. At the ages of nine and ten, children could still be grappling with the meaning of different aspects of the screen time survey. They may also not yet fully understand their own behaviors or habits.
In the screen time questionnaire, the maximum time category was four hours a day or more. This will not identify overuse. A international study of the nearly 600,000 children found beyond four hours (for boys) and two hours (for girls) was harmful.
Other important considerations include the different ways that children interact with devices. For example, screen time may involve interactive, recreational, or passive entertainment. Different devices also require different screen levels intensity.
The different intensities of screen time have to vary levels of influence on children’s mental health, life satisfaction and interactions. Researchers strongly emphasize measuring the quality of screen time, rather than quantity.
How do you define close friends?
The social survey focused on how many close friends a child has. This will not always mean social quality. A child can think of everything social media contacts as close friends and may simply interact with more people using their devices.
Because the study was based on a quantity criterion with the expression “close friends,” we cannot be sure that screen time actually strengthened peer relationships.
Also, it is an early age to measure screen use, as research shows non-sedentary behaviors (i.e. physical activity) peak later in elementary school. This is when children are most active, spending less time in front of the screen and most enjoy outdoor play compared to the last years of schooling.
Where do we go from here?
The study has laid the groundwork for adding more comparisons and evidence as participants approach adulthood in the next decade. Reinforced the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) on children’s health and identified key trends; Boys reported more total screen time on weekdays and weekends than girls.
Parents and teachers still need to show caution with children’s screen timeas the study found associations between screen time and a variety of negative impacts on children’s health.
Even if negative results were not identified as severe and screen time was not established as the direct cause, a research review suggests that we cannot rule out these associations.
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