Is screen time bad for kids? A defining question of the digital age answered

by Peter Griffin / 15 January, 2019
kids on phones

A study has found well-being was more strongly associated with different variables, for example, eating vegetables, than with digital-technology use. Photo/Getty

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The kids are alright – a major study shows virtually no ill-effects of technology use by adolescents.

It has become a common refrain from child psychologists, parents and teachers alike: too much screen time is making kids anxious, distracted and depressed.

Some schools, such as Auckland Grammar, have moved to ban mobile phones from classrooms during school hours while a plethora of apps and tools are now available to put limits on screen use in the home.

There are some valid reasons for doing so. You don’t have to spend long with teenagers to notice that they spend much of their time scrolling through Instagram posts or Snapchat messages on their phones. Distraction and social disengagement as a result of their growing technology use is a genuine issue.

But the suggestion that doing so is affecting their psychological wellbeing has been thoroughly debunked with the results of the largest study of its kind suggesting the ill-effects of screen time exposure amount to about the same as eating potatoes, or slightly less than wearing glasses.

Novel analysis

The study, published today in Nature Human Behaviour, used data from 300,000 adolescents who were surveyed in the United Kingdom and the United States between 2007 and 2016. Using a statistical method, the “Specification Analysis Curve”, researchers from the University of Oxford were able to look at the full range of correlations that relate digital technology use to child and adolescent psychological wellbeing.

They found that just 0.4 per cent of adolescent wellbeing was related to technology use. Smoking marijuana and being bullied, on the other hand, were found to have, on average, 2.7 times and 4.3 times more negative association with adolescent mental health than screen use.

Even factors like getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were more significant to mental wellbeing than screen time exposure.

So why are there so many calls to limit kids’ screen use, many of them based on previous studies produced by the scientific community? A Lancet study published in September found that children aged 8-11 who had less than two hours screen time each day performed better in mental tests than those who spend longer on devices, particularly if they got adequate sleep and exercise as well.

Bizarre results

“Research’s reliance on statistical significance can yield bizarre ‘results’”, says the paper’s co-author PhD candidate Amy Orben, lecturer in psychology at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

“We need to look at the size of the association to make a judgement on practical significance. If you told me the amount of time a teenager spends on digital devices, I could not do very well predicting their overall wellbeing, as only 0.4 per cent is associated with technology use.”

Orben and her colleagues found over 600 million possible ways to analyse the data as a result of employing the statistical method, which was chosen to remove bias and look at practical significance rather than statistical significance by drawing on answers to other questions included in the large data set.

The researchers claim the results show that bias and selective reporting is an ‘endemic’ problem in research examining the impact of screen exposure on adolescents. They’ve used their results to recommend no major public health policy changes that would aim to restrict screen time for kids.

Dr Max Davie, from the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Officer for Health Promotion, says the study supported a recent review from the College showing that while there may be some negative associations between screen time and poor mental health, there wasn’t evidence to suggest they were causal.

What works for the family

“Our recently-published guidance encourages parents to approach screen time based on their child’s developmental age, the individual need, and the value the family place on positive activities such as socialising, exercise and sleep,” says Dr Davie, who did not contribute to the Nature paper.

“Parents should feel empowered to adjust the amount of time spent on screens by them and their children, depending on what’s important to their family life”.

However, the study has its limitations. It looked at time adolescents spent in front of phones, TV and computer screens, but didn’t examine types of usage, such as social media or video gaming.

“For example, is the technology use of a twelve-year-old spending a few hours on a computer doing school work during the day the same as if it was say, 10pm at night and scrolling through social media posts for the same length of time?” says Dr Ben Carter, senior lecturer in biostatistics at the Institute of Psychiatry Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London.

He also pointed out that some of the data drawn on dates back to 2007, which may not reflect the typical use of digital devices in 2019. Still, the novel statistical approach is the best effort yet to examine the real link between use of gadgets and mental health, which could serve to inform discussions in households, schools and among public health officials.

No hard and fast guidelines

The Ministry of Health doesn’t put specific guidelines on screen time exposure, instead encouraging adequate physical activity. Likewise, internet safety agency Netsafe says putting a specific time limit on exposure is ineffective.

“There’s no simple answer to this question because not all screen time is created equal. Spending two hours on the internet watching cartoons isn’t as beneficial as spending two hours on the internet learning,” the agency points out.

“Parents need to think about the age and stage of their children, and understand how their children use the internet to be able to decide how much time they’d like their kids to be spending online.”

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