A recent study made headlines for suggesting screen-time harms were overrated. But a deeper dive reveals some serious flaws in the evidence.
Maybe you’ve seen the headlines recently: “Screens not as bad as you think” “Kids unharmed by long screen times” “Screens don’t cause anxiety.” Really??
The flurry of “good news” was sparked by a US study published in the prestigious Public Library of Science journal PLoS One which supposedly found no evidence that even staggering amounts of screen-time were harmful to kids. But a deeper dive reveals some serious flaws in the evidence.
An Australian study conducted in 2018 found Aussie mums and dads ranked online safety as their number-one concern.
There’s an old saying in journalism: “Dog bites man is not news. Man bites dog is.” The idea - which is as old as news-gathering itself - is that news is whatever surprises us, typically by overturning our assumptions or expectations.
Are we worrying for nothing?
Public awareness of a wide spectrum of digital risks has grown enormously in recent years - from online porn and child exploitation to gaming addiction and privacy concerns. An Australian study conducted in 2018, for example, found Aussie mums and dads ranked online safety as their number-one concern.
So a study published in a peer-reviewed journal that purportedly showed there is nothing to worry about …? Well, no wonder it made waves right around the globe.
But exactly how accurate were those headlines trumpeting the incredible news that screens were “harmless”?
Unpacking the research
According to a penetrating analysis by Charles Sturt University Dean of Research Brendon Hyndman, published in The Conversation, although the research did indeed suggest screens were not a direct cause of depression or anxiety - and seemed to be linked to positive peer relationships - those findings “came with caveats.”
The study examined the relationship between screen time and academic performance, sleep, socialisation and mental health in 12,000 nine and 10-year-olds from diverse backgrounds in the US.
Parents were asked to report on their kids’ screen-time, anxiety, grades and sleep, among other measures. The children themselves answered a questionnaire about their device use and friendship groups.
So first off, the research actually did find significant links between screen-time and sleep, mental health and academics. But these could not be confirmed as the direct result of screen-time. That’s hardly surprising, given that proving cause-and-effect relationships is nearly impossible in social research.
That said, the links that the research found were weaker than many previous studies have found. Why might that be? Professor Hyndman points out that the study relied entirely on self-report data, predominantly as supplied by parents. In other words, because the children were not observed, the evidence was only as good as the accuracy of parents’ reports.
Plenty of research has shown that what mums and dads say about their kids - and even what they see in their kids - is often highly coloured by their own hopes, fears and biases. Furthermore, on certain measures - sleep disruptions, most obviously - most parents would have been making assumptions, not stating facts.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of the study was that, on the questionnaire, the maximum screen-time category was “four hours a day and above.” “This,” observes Professor Hyndman, “will not identify excessive use.” In fact, current estimates show that children aged eight to 12 actually spend an average of six hours daily.
Finally, the research treated all screen-time as equal, regardless of its quality, level of stimulation or interactivity. Yet it is now well established that the type of screen-time kids engage with has a huge impact on their mental health, life satisfaction and relationships.
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