These days it can feel like everything we do involves screens. Work, school, and even booking a doctor’s appointment is done online, but many of us, especially those with young children, worry about the effects of extensive screen time on developing brains. A new study from the University of Colorado, Boulder is one of the largest to investigate how screens influence school-aged children and the results are less alarming than one might think.
The researchers assessed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of child health and brain development in the US to date. They analyzed grades, behavior, mental health assessments, and personal surveys from 11,800 9- and 10-year-olds and although they confirmed that children who spent more time on screens sleep worse, get poorer grades, and are more likely to have attention disorders, there was a surprising benefit to screen times as well.
The researchers found that children who spent more time on screens also had more close friendships than those who did not. Engagement with friends on social media and video games could in fact strengthen friendships for young kids.
The researchers also note that compared to other factors, screen time seems to play a relatively minor role in issues like anxiety, depression, and attention disorders. For example, socioeconomic status had 2.5 times greater impact on such behavioral outcomes. The researchers also note that many of the perceived negative impacts of screen time could actually be the result of reverse causation. Parents of children who exhibit behavioral issues could put them in front of screens more to calm or distract them.
The researchers did state that this study specifically analyzed young children, so the results are not necessarily applicable to teens. Senior author John Hewitt summarizes, “Using this extensive data set, we found that yes, there are relationships between screen time and negative outcomes, but they are not large and not dire.”