Is Screentime Toxic for Children: Study Says Maybe, Paediatricians Say Not Necessarily

“Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews” is the name of a newly published research paper by UCL researchers Dr. Russell M Viner and Neza Stiglic that looks at the evidence of harms and benefits relating to time spent on screens for children and young people.

This is what they found out:

  • Moderately strong evidence for associations between screentime and greater obesity and higher depressive symptoms.
  • Moderate evidence for an association between screentime and higher energy intake, less healthy diet quality and poorer quality of life.
  • Weak evidence for associations of screentime with behavior problems, anxiety, hyperactivity and inattention, poorer self-esteem, poorer well-being and poorer psychosocial health, metabolic syndrome, poorer cardiorespiratory fitness, poorer cognitive development and lower educational attainments and poor sleep outcomes.
  • No or insufficient evidence for an association of screentime with eating disorders or suicidal ideation, individual cardiovascular risk factors, asthma prevalence or pain. Evidence for threshold effects was weak. We found weak evidence that small amounts of daily screen use is not harmful and may have some benefits.

Correlation vs. Causation

While the research did find evidence for an association between screentime and obesity, higher energy intake, less healthy diets, and a poorer quality of life in general, it is critical to be aware that the observed link is merely a correlation.

This simply means that, if we were to look at a large enough sample of randomly chosen children and young adults, it will be likely that those who suffer any of the listed ailments are likely to be the ones that spend more screentime compared to the rest of the sample.

It does not mean, however, that screentime is what causes these ailments. Quite simply, it would be equally valid to make the claim that the ailments are what explains the above average screentime habits of these individuals.

At the same time, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), the professional body for paediatricians in the United Kingdom that oversees the training of specialists in child medicine, has produced the guidance for under-18s.

In the guidance, the RCPCH clearly states that there is no good evidence to suggest that screentime is in any way toxic to children at any age and refused to issue any screentime limits. Instead, it merely advised the use of screen devices before bedtime.