Too much screen time linked to ADHD, aggression, anxiety in children

CALGARY, Alberta — Too much screen time increases the risk of behavioral problems in kids such as ADHD, aggression, anxiety and depression, according to new research.

Children are choosing electronic media over reading, playing and interacting with family and peers. Scientists at the University of Calgary say it is impacting their social development – leading to “internalizing” or “externalizing” behaviors.

“The increasing rate of screen time in early childhood has engendered concern among clinicians, policy makers and parents regarding its possible effects on children’s mental health,” the authors write. “This study found small but significant correlations between screen time and children’s internalizing and externalizing behaviour problems. The magnitude of these correlations is comparable with that found in other meta-analyses on the association between screen time and child language skills and academic performance.”

Scientists pooled data from 87 studies around the world, involving 159,425 children under 12. Externalizing problems such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and aggression rose by 11 percent with increased duration of screen time. Rates of anxiety, depression and other linked mental disorders – known collectively as internalizing conditions – went up by seven percent.

“We found stronger correlations between screen time and externalizing problems in boys compared with girls,” the paper says.

Aggression, for instance, may be more readily modeled by boys through sexual stereotyping.

“In addition, we found studies measuring aggression had larger effect sizes than those measuring [ADHD] symptoms. While viewing screen media, children may be exposed to inappropriate content, aggression and violence,” the authors continue. “Consistent with social learning theory, children may become desensitized after repeated exposures and model aggressive or violent content toward others.”

Parents should be more mindful of kids’ screen time

Guidelines suggest parents should monitor screen time and ensure the content is age appropriate. They should also limit exposure to violence, communicate with their children about inappropriate images and model healthy device habits.

“The effects of screen time on children’s mental health has been rigorously debated. Some literature suggests screen time may be associated with risk of poor mental health outcomes by displacing sleep and physical activities as well as social exchanges and learning opportunities known to foster well-being,” the study says. “Screen media may also impede self-regulation strategies and increase arousal levels owing to fast-paced and intense audiovisual effects, which may be associated with inattention and aggressive behavior. However, it has been argued that concern with regard to screen time and its effect on child mental health is not empirically justified owing to conflicting research results and methodological shortcomings.”

More rigorous techniques and approaches are essential to further explore content and context associated with children’s mental health in a rapidly evolving digital world.

“As screens become normalized in childhood and contemporary culture, the risks associated with their use may become less consequential for children’s behavior problems,” the authors conclude. “Furthermore, parents today may be more informed and better at monitoring screen time and content owing to awareness of guidelines.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Report by South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn.