Parents can probably relax about screen time

Worried parents can probably relax a little about screen time with an “umbrella review” of the research finding the effects on children are pretty small, and sometimes beneficial.

According to new research published in Nature Human Behaviour, those small-to-moderate risks or benefits depend on the content and the context for screentime.

The paper’s lead author Dr Taren Sanders tells Cosmos, that one of their main findings was questioning whether the “catch all phrase of screen time” is useful or appropriate for providing advice to parents.

“Nobody thinks the 30-minute video call with grandma is the same as playing a violent video game on your mobile phone, even though it’s the same device and the same length of exposure,” he says. 

Sanders is a health scientist and senior research fellow at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University. He says the study was prompted by a poll from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne finding excessive screen time was the number one concern parents had about their children’s health and behaviour.

But he says, “the effect sizes we observed, overall, were really small – surprisingly small for something that is so concerning to parents.”

“One thing I would say to parents is just kind of take a deep breath. If you’re worried about screen time, you’re probably doing a bang-up job.”

The review considered 102 meta-analyses of screen time and children’s associated health- and education-related outcomes, with 43 effects from 32 papers meeting inclusion criteria. 

Sanders says there was no shortage of studies and meta-analyses to review, covering every kind of ‘screen’ from apps and social media to games and television on all sorts of different topics, including physical activity and mental health.

The analysis focuses on the outcomes of high quality studies, ones which had a large enough sample size, consistency (called heterogeneity), and avoiding publication bias.

The paper finds evidence for several small, negative associations with social media, while educational results for other screen activities were mixed.

Social media was one type of screen time which posed risks with no indication of potential benefits. Several studies identified associated harms for things like depression and anxiety. 

“It was pretty clear that this is not something we’d be promoting for children,” Sanders says.

Most of the positive benefits from video games, apps and television related to educational outcomes. And active video games did produce some positive health results, he says.

In one example Sanders particularly likes: “We found that general television viewing is associated with poorer literacy outcomes for kids. But if you changed that to be television, co-viewing, so watching television with a parent, that effect size was reversed. And neither of these effects were particularly large.”

It’s interesting that you can reverse the effect for children, just by having someone join in, he says.

He adds that the intent of the content matters more than the device. Screens can be persuasive when it comes to changing children’s behaviour, Sanders says. And that can be used for good, in the case of educational apps, or for harm if used for advertising high calorie foods.

The researchers had originally intended to design an intervention to try to reduce screen time. But in light of their findings, they hope to translate their research and make it easier for parents to weigh the risks and benefits.

The paper also supports a shift away from time-based screen time guidelines and towards a focus on content.

The findings suggest that apart from social media, and a small subset of kids for whom screens are addicting, there’s not a lot of risks associated with screen time, Sanders says. 

To concerned parents, he says: If the activity is designed to be educational, or its an age-appropriate recreational activity like a video game, “it’s probably fine to let them play on that for a little while”. 

Support cosmos today

Cosmos is a not-for-profit science newsroom that provides free access to thousands of stories, podcasts and videos every year. Help us keep it that way. Support our work today.

Please login to favourite this article.