TV may be educational, but social media is likely to harm mental health: what 70 years of research tells us about children and screens

Ask any parent and they’ll likely tell you they’re concerned about the amount of screen time their kids are getting. A 2021 survey found Australian parents are the number one concern for their children’s health ahead of cyberbullying and unhealthy eating. But how worried should parents be?

The information that exists can be confusing. Some psychologists have compared it to smoking (amid concerns about screen time), while others tell us not to worry too much about children and screens.

Academics are also confused. As The Lancet noted in 2019, researchers’ understanding of the benefits, risks and harms of the digital landscape is sorely lacking.

In our new research, we wanted to provide parents, policy makers and researchers with a comprehensive summary of the best evidence on the impact of screens on children’s physical and mental health, education and development.

What did we do?

Meta-analyses are one of the best forms of evidence because they summarize the findings of a large number of studies at once.

This can give us much better insight into what is going on than just looking at one study of one group of people. Thus, we collected all meta-analyses conducted in English on any form of screen time in children, regardless of outcome.

We found 217 meta-analyses, almost half of which were published in just the last two years. These meta-analyses present findings from 2,451 individual studies and have a combined sample of more than 1.9 million children and adolescents up to 18 years of age. Individual studies were conducted between 1954 and 2021, and meta-analyses were conducted between 1982 and 2022.

Our research included more than 2,400 studies.
Jessica Lewis/Pexels, CC BI-SA

Good news

We found some things that should reassure parents.

The overall effect size of screens on outcomes (eg, depression, body weight, literacy, and sleep) in children was small.

Almost all scores had a correlation of less than 0.2, which is about the same as the correlation between height and intelligence. This does not mean that the effect for an individual child will always be so small, just that on average the ratio is small.

How children use screens is important

We also discovered that it’s not the screen itself that really matters, but what’s on it and how kids use it.

Television is a form of screen time that has worried parents for more than half a century. We found that general television viewing was associated with poorer academic performance and literacy skills. Our study did not give us time constraints, but found a linear relationship. That is, the more television a child watched, the poorer their literacy skills.

But if the program was educational or if the child was watching with a parent, we found that it benefited their literacy. This is probably because it gives parents a chance to talk about things in the show (I think Bluey is disappointed) or ask questions (what is Bingo drawing?) which develops language skills.

Read more: More blue, less PAW Patrol: why Australian parents want locally made TV for their kids

Not very good news

A young woman is sitting on a chair and looking at the phone.
Our research found that more social media use was associated with mental health problems and risk taking.
Lisa Summer/Peckels, CC BI-SA

We found that some forms of screen time were consistently associated with harm and had no evidence of benefit.

Chief among these was social media, which was linked to depression, anxiety and risk-taking. Again, our research found a link between the more time a child spent on social media, the more likely they were to have mental health problems.

This is similar to advice released this year by the US Surgeon General. This noted that while social media could provide community and connections for young people (especially from marginalized groups), it could also harm their mental health.

Read more: Excessive screen time can affect young people’s emotional development

What it means?

As other education experts have noted, screen time is a somewhat useless term.

No one thinks that Facetiming Nanna and scrolling through TikTok are equivalent, but both would fall under the recreational screen time category of Australian guidelines.

So the key message of our study is to focus less on the elusive time limit and instead focus on what children are actually doing on screens. Try to steer them toward educational apps, TV programs, and video games.

But it cannot be education all the time, children also need time for recreation. And if you watch with your child, it can also benefit.

Read more: If your child is home sick from school, is unlimited screen time okay?

Don’t forget to be active

Regardless of what screen-based activities you choose to allow, remember that most screen time is sedentary. Long periods of sitting aren’t great for kids (or adults!), so breaking up these periods with movement is still important.

After all, the most important factor for a child’s development is quality parenting. Being present, spending quality time and creating a caring environment is what really makes the difference for children. You are more important to your child’s mental and physical health than the screen.

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