Several hours a day with screen time is OK, study suggests

Research Brief is a brief overview of interesting academic work.

The big idea

Even when children spend five hours a day on the screen – whether it be computers, television or text – it does not seem to be harmful. My colleagues and I at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered this after analyzing data taken from nearly 12,000 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study — the largest long-term study of its kind ever in the United States.

Participants included children aged 9 to 10 years, with different backgrounds, income levels, and ethnicities. We explored how screen time was linked to some of the most critical 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 a child’s depression or anxiety. Larger amounts of screen time were associated with stronger peer relationships for both boys and girls – both have more male and female friends. Use of social screen can drive this association; video games, for example, are a social activity that seems to create more friendships. So do social media and texting.

Several hours a day with screen time is OK, study suggests
Many parents are concerned that their children are spending too much time on screens.
Radovanovic96 via Getty Images

Why it matters

American children spend more time on screens than ever before. Parents often worry that technology will negatively affect young people, especially those who enter adolescence – a critical period of development.

What you still do not know

Our study also found negative correlations: More screen time predicted higher levels of attention problems, poorer sleep, poorer academic performance, and an increase in aggression and misbehavior.

Taken at face value, these contrasting positive and negative contexts are confusing. Is screen time good or bad?

Perhaps none of them: When we look at the strength of the context, we see only very modest associations. That is, any correlation between screen time and the different outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small that it is unlikely to be important at a clinical level.

Some children scored lower than others on these results, some scored higher; screen time explained only 2% of the difference in score. This suggests that the differences are explained by many variables, not just screen time. It’s a very small piece of a much larger image.

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Our study is also correlative rather than causal. Correlation research shows that two seemingly related variables do not necessarily create changes in each other. Causal research implies that one variable caused a direct change in the other.

For example, we found that adolescents who spend more time on screens may show more symptoms of aggression. But we can not say that screen time causes the symptoms; instead, perhaps more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior.

Conclusion: Although parents should make sure that their children use screens in appropriate ways, our early research suggests that a long time on the screen is unlikely to have serious consequences.

Two young boys at school share a class assignment on a laptop.
The results show that screen time can strengthen the relationship between peers.
Marko Geber / Digital Vision via Getty Images

What’s next

Currently, there is no set threshold for an “acceptable” screen time. Although there are guidelines for younger children, nothing is official for young people.

In addition, our study did not include academic screen use, only recreation. So it was impossible to compare results between academic and recreational use of screens.

The ABCD study will follow these children until they are 20 years old. Future research may investigate how screen time can affect children during their teenage years, when it is possible that more symptoms of mental anxiety will show up. At the moment, however, only one thing is certain: Screens are here to stay.

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