Large study finds potential benefits of digital screen time for children
A new screen time study tracking the effects of device use in schoolchildren has found those who spend more time with digital devices had larger friendship groups. The research indicates the influence of screen time on children may not be as undesirable as some previous studies have suggested.
The ubiquity of screens in modern life is inarguably more pervasive than ever before. Young children are growing up in front of screens and it is reasonable to be concerned about the effects of this novel phenomenon.
There is certainly a body of research associating poor mental health in children with frequent use of digital devices. However, a parallel body of research is also indicating most screen time research is not nearly granular enough, with many recent studies finding the volume of time spent using digital technology has no direct influence on well-being.
New research, led by a team from the Institute for Behavioral Genetics at the University of Colorado Boulder, examined data from a large ongoing study tracking child health and brain development. Data from nearly 12,000 children aged either nine or 10 were analyzed.
Across the entire cohort, the children used screens for an average of four to five hours each day. This time did not include digital device use for school-related activities. Boys spent around 45 minutes more each day using screens compared to girls. And girls were more likely to be using screens for social media, while boys spent more time playing video games.
Ultimately, the researchers did detect very minor associations between greater daily screen time and poorer grades, less sleep or behaviors such as ADHD. But, according to the researchers, those associations were tiny compared to the influence of other factors on these outcomes. Socioeconomic status, for example, was much more influential across all tracked negative outcomes compared to screen time.
“A number of papers in recent years have suggested that screen time might be harmful for children, but there have also been some reviews that suggest those negative effects have been overestimated,” notes John Hewitt, senior author on the study. “Using this extensive data set, we found that yes, there are relationships between screen time and negative outcomes, but they are not large and not dire.”
The research also points out the causal relationship between screen time and certain behavioral problems, such as ADHD, is unclear. It is possible, the study hypothesizes, that some parents use screens as a distraction more frequently in children with behavioral problems. Hence, the behaviors may feed the additional volumes of screen time instead of screen time generating the negative behaviors.
Interestingly, the study also found more screen time in general correlated with a child having larger friendship networks. The researchers hypothesize this to indicate, “the social nature of such screen time use strengthens relationships between peers and allows them to stay connected even when apart.”
Hewitt, who is a father of four children, says there is currently no objective or empirical amount of acceptable screen time for children. Instead, understanding the pros and cons of digital device use in adolescents is a much more complicated equation based on what activity a screen is used for.
“The picture is unclear and depends on what devices, which activities, what is being displaced, and, I strongly suspect, the characteristics of the child,” says Hewitt. “I would advise parents not to be overly concerned about their kids spending a few hours a day on their devices.”
While the findings in this new study are robust, and based on a very large representative cohort, the research suffers from a major problem that plagues most modern screen time research. The problem of self-reported device use.
How much time do you spend each day in front of screens?
Craig Sewell, from the University of Pittsburgh, was co-author of a recent review article investigating the discrepancies between self-reported device use and actual use. He says there is often a big difference between the amount of time people say they spend on digital devices and the amount of time they actually spend. This indicates most self-reporting measures utilized in screen time research are not reliable.
“These measures typically ask people to give their best guesses about how often they used digital technologies over the past week or month or even year,” Sewell explains. “The problem is that people are terrible at estimating their digital technology use, and there’s evidence that people who are psychologically distressed are even worse at it. This is understandable because it’s very hard to pay attention to and accurately recall something that you do frequently and habitually.”
A recent study from Sewell and colleagues looked at the relationship between digital device use and mental health in young adults. The novelty of the study was its focus on objective device use data gathered from Apple’s "Screen Time" application.
“… when I used these objective measures to track digital technology use among young adults over time, I found that increased use was not associated with increased depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts,” reports Sewell. “In fact, those who used their smartphones more frequently reported lower levels of depression and anxiety.”
Katie Paulich, lead author on the new screen time study with John Hewitt, says her research has found major differences between types of screen time and mental health outcomes. For example, she says binge-watching TV shows has been associated with negative mental health outcomes, while playing video games has been linked to stronger friendships.
All of this ultimately suggests it is better for parents to focus on when and how their children are using devices as opposed to simply calculating an overall usage timeframe per day.
“These findings suggest that we should be mindful of screens, but that screen time is likely not inherently harmful to our youth,” adds Paulich.
The new research was published in the journal PLOS One.
Source: University of Colorado Boulder