Decoding screen time: A thorough review of its impacts on young minds

In a recent study published in Nature Human Behavior, researchers conducted an umbrella review of over a hundred meta-analyses to understand the impacts of electronic media exposure and screen use on youths and provide guidelines on electronic screen use to parents, caregivers, teachers, and policymakers.

Study: An umbrella review of the benefits and risks associated with youths’ interactions with electronic screens. Image Credit: Ternavskaia Olga Alibec/Shutterstock.comStudy: An umbrella review of the benefits and risks associated with youths’ interactions with electronic screens. Image Credit: Ternavskaia Olga Alibec/Shutterstock.com

Background

Historically, the reception to any novel technology or concept, such as books, schooling, or the radio, has involved a degree of skepticism, concern, mistrust, and sometimes hysteria.

Books were thought to harm and confuse children, while a school education was believed to be exhausting for children’s brains. By the time reading became an acceptable activity, the invention of the radio was thought to be distracting and negatively impact reading habits in children.

Similar arguments have now been presented against the use of electronic technology among children, and one of the major parental concerns in Western countries is excessive screen use among children.

Current research presents conflicting results about the impact of screen use on children. While television viewing is believed to be detrimental to children's mental and physical well-being when excessive, other screen exposure forms such as online communications such as Zoom and even video games have been reported to be beneficial.

Given the lack of clarity about the impact of screen use on youths and that electronic technology use is now intertwined with most aspects of life, such as education, employment, and entertainment, a comprehensive assessment of the risks and benefits of screen use is required.

About the study

In the present study, the researchers conducted an umbrella review of many meta-analyses examining the impacts of screen use among youths and children.

They did not restrict the outcomes examined in the review, and this broad approach helped them gain a more holistic perspective on how screen use affects various aspects of children’s lives.

Meta-analyses involving participants between zero to 18 years or with a mean study population of 18 years that examined the use of a wide range of electronic screens such as televisions, computers, gaming consoles, mobile phones, and tablets were included in the review.

The included studies examined all types of content, such as movies, television programs, recreational games, video chats, and other content for communication and homework.

Studies that examined the non-clinical outcomes of screen exposure on children with clinical conditions, such as using electronic devices for learning, were included. However, studies examining the use of electronic technology for clinical treatments were excluded. All outcomes were reported in the risk-benefit analyses.

A risk of bias assessment was conducted after extracting relevant data from the meta-analyses.

Furthermore, a statistical classification method was used to determine if the effect sizes in the included studies were credible, with a combined sample size of more than a thousand participants and a non-significant test of bias being the criteria for credibility.

Including multiple life domains such as home and school in the synthesis provided parents, caregivers, and teachers with information for evidence-based development of guidelines for electronic technology use among children.

Results

The findings suggested that the evidence for the risks and benefits of electronic technology use was mixed in the education domain. The association between screen use and literacy was mostly negative, except when parents also participated in the technology use with their children.

In domains associated with health, numerous small negative associations were observed, such as an increase in depression linked to social media use.

When the type of device, content, or context was not specified, the results indicated potentially detrimental associations between screen exposure and domains such as literacy, general learning, mental health, and body composition.

However, the findings were more nuanced when exposures were examined separately. While television viewing, in general, was linked to a decrease in literacy, viewing educational content in the company of a parent was associated with improved learning.

Similar patterns were observed for content such as video games, indicating that the role of the parent in selecting the range was an important aspect of the association.

Social media consistently showed negative associations with health and had no potential benefits in any context. It was linked to detrimental outcomes such as increased risk-taking, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and mental health problems.

In contrast, screen-based learning interventions were consistently associated with beneficial outcomes, highlighting that the content is an important aspect of understanding the impact of electronic technology use.

Conclusions

Overall, the findings suggested that the impact of electronic technology use varied based on the content and context. Television use was beneficial for learning when viewed by parents, and the content was educational.

Social media, however, was consistently associated with negative impacts on mental health, substance abuse, and risk-taking behavior.

Journal reference:
Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Written by

Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Chinta Sidharthan is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Her academic background is in evolutionary biology and genetics, and she has extensive experience in scientific research, teaching, science writing, and herpetology. Chinta holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the Indian Institute of Science and is passionate about science education, writing, animals, wildlife, and conservation. For her doctoral research, she explored the origins and diversification of blindsnakes in India, as a part of which she did extensive fieldwork in the jungles of southern India. She has received the Canadian Governor General’s bronze medal and Bangalore University gold medal for academic excellence and published her research in high-impact journals.

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