The benefits of screen time for school-aged children?

This study only shows correlations, typical for screen time research. Paulich and colleagues show in their research that school-aged children who spend more time in front of screens are only slightly more likely to

  • have attention disorders,
  • disturbed sleep or
  • lower grades and

The good news is that they are no more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

The best news seems to be that they tend to have more close friends.

I think this study shows a shift that has been going on for quite a while, in which have become interactive portals to online meetings with friends through games and social media. But as I said, I think we need to be cautious as these are all correlations.

From the press release:

“These findings suggest that we should be mindful of screens, but that screen time is likely not inherently harmful to our youth,” said lead author Katie Paulich, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

For the study, Paulich and colleagues at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, assessed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of child health and brain development ever conducted in the United States.

They analyzed information from a diverse national sample of 11,800 9- and 10-year-olds, including questionnaires about screen time, parental reports of behavioral issues and grades, and mental health assessments.

On average, boys spent about 45 minutes more daily with screens than girls, topping out at nearly five hours daily on weekends and four hours on weekdays.

Boys and girls used screens differently, with boys spending twice as much time with video games, while girls spent more time engaging with social media. (The data, collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not include screen time associated with homework or online learning).

Like previous, smaller studies, the research found that children who spent more time in front of screens tended to sleep worse, get poorer grades and show more ‘externalizing’ behaviors (things like ADHD, Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder).

But compared to other factors shaping their lives, the influence of screen time was minute.

For instance, a child’s socioeconomic status had 2.5 times greater impact on such behavioral outcomes. Of all the influences assessed, screen time accounted for only about 2% of the variation between kids in the outcomes measured.

“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,” said senior author John Hewitt, director of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics. “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.”

While the study did find associations between screen time and some mental health and behavioral problems, Paulich stressed that this does not mean it caused them. In fact, the reverse could be true.

For instance, parents with children who have a tendency to act out aggressively or lack attention might be more likely to sit them down with a video game. Children who can’t sleep for other reasons might turn to their smartphones to pass the time.

While more research is necessary, it could be that the type of screen time matters more than the amount, Paulich said. For instance, previous research has found that video games played with others can foster relationships, particularly for boys (who tend to play them more) while binge- watching shows alone can have negative consequences.

Because the new study looked only at youth aged 9 and 10, the findings don’t necessarily apply to older kids. The researchers intend to follow the group over time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has established screen time guidelines for children under 5 but, the authors note, there is not yet an empirically established threshold for what an “acceptable level” of screen time is for older kids.

“The picture is unclear and depends on what devices, which activities, what is being displaced, and, I strongly suspect, the characteristics of the child,” said Hewitt.

For now, said the father-of-four: “I would advise parents not to be overly concerned about their kids spending a few hours a day on their devices.”

Abstract of the study:

In a technology-driven society, screens are being used more than ever. The high rate of electronic media use among children and adolescents begs the question: is screen time harming our youth? The current study draws from a nationwide sample of 11,875 participants in the United States, aged 9 to 10 years, from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD Study®). We investigate relationships between screen time and mental health, behavioral problems, academic performance, sleep habits, and peer relationships by conducting a series of correlation and regression analyses, controlling for SES and race/ethnicity. We find that more screen time is moderately associated with worse mental health, increased behavioral problems, decreased academic performance, and poorer sleep, but heightened quality of peer relationships. However, effect sizes associated with screen time and the various outcomes were modest; SES was more strongly associated with each outcome measure. Our analyses do not establish causality and the small effect sizes observed suggest that increased screen time is unlikely to be directly harmful to 9-and-10-year-old children.

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