Excessive screen time linked to developmental and behavioral issues in U.S. children – PsyPost

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A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research shows a significant link between excessive screen time and various developmental and behavioral problems in children across the United States. The study, focusing on children from infancy to adolescence, emphasizes the heightened vulnerability of preschoolers and boys to the adverse effects of high screen time.

Past research has painted a conflicting picture of the impact of digital media on children’s development. While some studies suggested detrimental effects, others found no significant correlation. This latest study ventures into this field to unpack both ends of the discourse and provide a more comprehensive understanding. Researchers used statistical methods to examine if there was a notable relationship between the time children spend on screens and their developmental and behavioral health. This approach, known as correlational analysis, helps identify patterns and relationships without necessarily proving one causes the other.

The increasing pervasiveness of digital media in children’s lives, coupled with these conflicting findings from previous research, rooted the interest of the researchers. Recognizing the critical developmental stages during childhood, the study’s goal was to determine how screen time might affect children’s psychological and behavioral development.

To explore this relationship, the researchers analyzed data from the 2018 to 2020 National Survey of Children’s Health. This large-scale survey provided a representative sample of randomly selected U.S. children, aged 0 to 17 years, amounting to more than 100,000 participants. The researchers used logistic regression models — a statistical tool suitable for large datasets — to evaluate the associations between screen time and various developmental and behavioral issues.

The study identified that a significant portion of U.S. children, over 70% of preschoolers and over 80% of older children, were exposed to excessive screen time. What was considered “excessive screen time” was based on age groups. For preschoolers aged 0–5 years, excessive screen time was defined as 1 hour or more per day. For children and adolescents aged 6–17 years, it was defined as 2 hours or more per day. This definition aligns with the guidelines on screen time suggested by the World Health Organization.

The researchers found that excessive screen time was positively associated with a range of issues — including behavioral and conduct problems, developmental delays, speech disorders, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The association was particularly pronounced in preschool-aged children and boys, indicating a potential period of heightened sensitivity to screen exposure. The researchers noted, “children with excessive screen time are at high odds of developmental and behavioral problems, especially for preschoolers and boys.”

Although the study’s results were significant, possible limitations are important to consider — such as the study itself being a cross-sectional analysis, which can highlight associations but cannot establish causation. The reliance on caregiver recall for information on screen time and developmental issues might introduce biases, as well, and the study also did not differentiate between subtypes of screen time — which could have varying impacts on children’s development. Moreover, it focused only on weekdays, potentially overlooking weekend behaviors. These aspects suggest the need for more nuanced and longitudinal studies in the future.

“Caregivers, educators, policy makers, and health care providers should pay more attention to the screen time of children and it is necessary to take applicable interventions at an early stage for children with excessive digital media use,” the researchers concluded.

The study, “Association between screen time and developmental and behavioral problems among children in the United States: evidence from 2018 to 2020 NSCH”, was authored by Guangbo Qu, Wenjing Hu, Jia Meng, Xingyue Wang, Wenqi Su, Haixia Liu, Shaodi Ma, Chenyu Sun, Christy Huang, Scott Lowe, and Yehuan Sun at Anhui Medical University, AMITA Health St. Joseph Hospital, Santa Clara University, and Kansas City University.

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