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If you’ve internalized some parental guilt about your own child’s use of screen time, you are not alone. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to significant screen time in children increases the risk of depression and behavioral disorders, sleep disorders, and obesity, among other things. Knowing all of this, every time you unlock the iPad or turn on the TV for your child, you can swallow a long gulp of guilt.
But is screen time really that bad? New research may not say so. A study of 12,000 9- and 10-year-olds published in September 2021 found that even if school-age children spend up to 5 hours a day in front of screens (watching TV, texting or playing video games), it does not appear to be as harmful to themselves be their mental health.
The researchers found no association between screen use and depression or anxiety in children of this age.
In fact, kids who had more access to screen time tended to have more friends and stronger relationships with their peers, most likely thanks to the social nature of video games, social media, and texting.
The correlations between screen time and children’s health
But there is one caveat to these large social benefits. The researchers also found that children who used screens more often were actually more likely to have attention problems, impaired sleep, poorer academic performance, and more likely to display aggressive behavior.
Without a randomized controlled trial, it’s hard to pin these effects as being directly caused by screens. The authors of the study analyzed data from a nationwide study called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD study), the largest long-term study of brain development and children’s health in the country. They relied on the screen time reported by children and adults themselves (it’s funny to note that these reported numbers were slightly different depending on the question asked …).
It is important to remember that these results are only correlations – not causalities. “We cannot say that screen time is causing the symptoms; instead, more aggressive children may get screen devices to distract them and calm their behavior,” says Katie Paulich, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. It is also noteworthy that a child’s socio-economic status has a 2.5 times greater impact on behavior than monitors.
It is up to you as the parent who knows your child best to weigh up the benefits and risks. And because we live in a digital world, screens have become indispensable, so that parents often have little choice. It is impossible to say whether children’s screen leisure time is “good” or “bad”. It may be both.
“If we look at the strength of the correlations, we only see very modest associations,” says Paulich. “That said, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, good or bad, is so small that it is unlikely to be important on a clinical level.” It’s all just part of the picture.
A novel look at screen time in teens
Researchers cite a lack of studies examining the relationship between screen time and health outcomes in this specific early adolescent age group, which is one of the reasons this study is so groundbreaking. The results do not apply to younger children – or older teenagers who may be entering puberty.
While there are guidelines on screen time for toddlers to older children, up to 1.5 hours per day seems out of reach for many young adolescents, who often have their own smartphones and laptops or at least access them regularly.
Of course, more research is needed, but this is where this study can help. The ABCD study will follow the 12,000 participants for another 10 years, followed by annual check-ins. It will be interesting to see how the results change over time: will depression and anxiety due to screen time become more common as children get older? We have to wait and see.