Even when kids spend five hours a day on a screen—whether it’s computers, TV, or texting—it doesn’t seem to be harmful. That’s what my colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder and I discovered after analyzing data from nearly 12,000 participants in the Cognitive Development Study of the Adolescent Brain — the largest long-term study of its kind ever in the United States.
Participants included children between the ages of 9 and 10, from diverse backgrounds, income levels, and ethnicities. We’ve looked at how screen time relates to some of the most important aspects of their lives: sleep, mental health, behavior, and friendships.
Our results, recently published in the journal PLOS One, found no association between screens and child depression or anxiety. Greater amounts of screen time were associated with stronger peer relationships for both boys and girls — each having more male and female friends. Social screen use may lead to this association; Video games, for example, are a social activity that seems to foster more friendships. As well as social media and texting.
Some negatives of screen time
American children are spending more time on screens than ever before. Parents often worry that technology is negatively affecting young people, especially those entering adolescence – a critical period of development.
Our study also found negative associations: more screen time expected higher levels of attention problems, worse sleep, poorer academic performance, and increases in aggression and misbehavior.
On the face of it, these contrasting positive and negative correlations are baffling. Is screen time good or bad?
Probably nobody: When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest correlations. That is, any association between screen time and different outcomes, both good and bad, is very small and unlikely to be clinically significant.
Some children scored lower than others on these scores, and some scored higher; Screen time only explained 2% of the difference in scores. This indicates that the differences were explained by many variables, not just screen time. It’s a very small piece of a much larger picture.
Also, our study is correlative rather than causal. Correlational research shows that two seemingly related variables do not necessarily generate changes in each other. Causal research indicates that one variable caused a direct change in the other.
For example, we found that teens who spend more time in front of screens may show more aggressive symptoms. But we can’t say that time spent in front of a screen causes symptoms; Alternatively, more aggressive children may be given screen devices as an attempt to distract and calm their behavior.
Conclusion: While parents should ensure that their children use screens in appropriate ways, our early research indicates that extended screen time is not likely to lead to serious consequences, and results show that screen time may strengthen peer relationships.
At the moment, there is no set limit for an “acceptable” amount of screen time. While there are guidelines for younger children, nothing official is set for teens.
In addition, our study did not include academic screen use, only entertainment. Therefore it was impossible to compare the results of academic screen use versus the results of recreational screen use.
The ABCD study will follow these children until their 20s. Future research may examine how screen time may affect children over the course of adolescence, when more symptoms of mental health problems are likely. For now, one thing is for sure: screens are here to stay.
Katie Polish has a Ph.D. Student in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral genetics at the University of Colorado Boulder. This was first published by The Conversation – “Kids and Their Computers: Several Hours a Day of Screen Time Is Ok, Study Suggests”.