Too much screen time may not be so bad for kids after all

BOULDER, Colo. — Children and adolescents today spend much more time scrolling and staring at screens than older generations. Many believe all that extra screen time isn’t doing tomorrow’s leaders any favors, but a surprising new study actually finds the opposite. University of Colorado-Boulder researchers report increased screen time among adolescents only results in a slightly higher risk of attention disorders, disturbed sleep, or lower grades. Meanwhile, there does not appear to be an increased risk whatsoever of depression or anxiety.

Moreover, school-aged children who spend lots of time staring at digital screens tend to have more close friends, the study finds.

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

Reinforcing these findings is the fact that this is among the largest studies to date focusing on the topic of screen time and adolescents. The team used data on 11,800 nine and 10 year-olds originally collected for the ongoing Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study. It’s the single largest long-term study investigating child health and brain development in the United States. Each of those children filled out surveys on their usual screen time habits, underwent mental health tests, and had their parental submit reports on both their child’s behavioral issues and grades.

There’s a bigger influence on kids than screen time

Generally, boys tend to spend 45 minutes more staring at screens on a daily basis than girls. The average American boy spends close to five hours with screens over weekends and four hours on weekdays. The data also indicates that boys and girls use their screen time in different ways. Boys tend to play more video games, while girls gravitate towards browsing social media. It’s worth noting that researchers collected this data prior to COVID-19, and therefore the study does not account for remote learning screen time.

Unfortunately, not all of the findings regarding screen time are positive. In line with previous research, the study concludes that kids who spend lots of time in front of screens often sleep less, have lower grades, and exhibit more behaviors associated with conditions including ADHD. However, study authors clarify that in comparison to other “life-shaping factors,” the overall influence of screen time on these issues is minimal at best. For example, results show socioeconomic status is 2.5 times more influential on sleep patterns and school grades than screen time. All in all, screen time only accounts for about two percent of the variation in these outcomes among kids.

“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,” adds senior study 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.”

Some forms of screen time may be better than others

The observed connection between increased screen time and behavioral issues is strenuous at best as well, researchers say. They explain there is no indication that screen time causes such problems. If anything, it may be the other way around. The parents of a children with behavioral issues may be more inclined to sit them down with a phone or video game.

Another big factor is the type of screen time. Video game playing promotes much more social behavior than watching TV all alone. Ultimately, the research team concludes more work is needed on this topic, but the general belief that “screen time is bad for kids” may be oversimplifying the issue.

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

The study appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

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