A study suggests that exposing children to screens for several hours a day is okay.

It is not yet possible to determine the causality between childhood aggression and the use of screens. Photo: Bigstock

Even when kids spend five hours a day on the screen – whether it’s computers, TV, or texting – it doesn’t appear to be harmful. This is what my colleagues and I at the University of Colorado discovered after analyzing data collected from nearly 12,000 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of its kind. in the USA.

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Participants included children aged 9-10, from various backgrounds, income levels and ethnicities. We investigated how screen time relates to some of the most critical aspects of their lives: sleep, mental health, behavior, and friendships.

Our results, published recently in the journal PLOS One, found no association between screens and a child’s depression or anxiety. A greater amount of screen time was associated with stronger peer relationships for boys and girls – both have more male and female friends.

Social use of the screen can lead to this association; video games, for example, are a social activity that seems to foster more friendships. The same goes for social media and texting.

why is this important

American children are spending more screen time than ever before. Parents often worry that technology is negatively affecting young people, especially those entering their teens – a critical period of development.

what is not yet known

Our study also found negative correlations: more screen time predicted higher levels of attention problems, poorer sleep, poorer school performance, and increased aggression and bad behavior.

Taken literally, these contrasting positive and negative correlations are confusing. Is screen time good or bad?

Perhaps neither: Looking at the strength of the correlations, we only see very modest associations. That is, any association between screen time and various outcomes, good or bad, is so weak that it is unlikely to be of clinical significance.

Some children scored lower than others on these results and others scored higher; the time spent in front of a screen explained only 2% of the difference in scores. This suggests that the differences can be explained by many variables, and not just screen time.

In addition, our study is correlational rather than causal. Correlational research shows that two apparently related variables do not necessarily change each other. Causal research implies that one variable caused a direct change in the other.

For example, we’ve found that teens who spend more screen time may have more aggressive symptoms. But we cannot say that screen time would cause such symptoms; instead, the more aggressive children may be given screens to try to distract them and calm their behavior.

Bottom Line: While parents need to make sure their kids are using screens correctly, our initial research suggests screen time is unlikely to have dire consequences.

What’s next

Currently, there is no “acceptable” screen time limit. Although there are guidelines for young children, nothing official has been established for adolescents, for example.

In addition, our study did not include the use of academic screens, only recreational screens. It was therefore impossible to compare the results of school and recreational use of the screen.

The ABCD study will follow these children until the age of 20. Future research could examine how screen time can affect children throughout adolescence, when more symptoms of mental health issues may appear. For now, however, only one thing is certain: the screens are here to stay.

* Katie Paulich is a doctoral candidate in psychology, neuroscience and behavioral genetics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

© 2021 The Conversation. Posted with permission. Original in English.

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