From the dawn of the television era, parents have worried about how much time their children spend watching television. But new advances in affordable electronics and digital devices mean that children are spending more time than ever with their eyes glued to one screen or another.

In the early 1980s, studies showed children spending approximately 15 to 16 hours each week just watching television. Now, with the rise of video games, social media, and web surfing, total screen time for children has soared dramatically. According to a 2010 study, the average American child (aged 8 to 18) will spend more than 50 hours a week in some form of screen-watching. This breaks down to 31 hours and 20 minutes watching television and an additional 8 hours and 30 minutes playing video games. And the rise of Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms, not to mention texting, photo or video-sharing, means even more screen time for children and adolescents.  

One factor that seems to contributing to this trend deals with what has been termed "bedroom media" (BRM). As the price of televisions, video game consoles, etc., have steadily dropped, more and more parents are buying televisions and other devices for children to use in their bedrooms. In the same 2010 study cited previously, over 40 percent of children aged 4 to 6 have bedroom televisions while 71 percent of children 8 or older have one or more. Half of all children 8 years or older have video game consoles as well. Not surprisingly, research shows that children with media devices in their bedrooms put in much more screen time per week than children who don't.

So what kind of impact does this added screen time have on children? While studies have suggested that increased media exposure can lead to greater obesity, poorer performance in school, and increased risk of aggression and addictive behavior, there has been relatively little research looking specifically at bedroom media and whether the extra time children spend watching television or playing video games in their bedrooms could affect their social or cognitive development. But a new article published in the journal Developmental Psychology takes a closer look at what bedroom media can mean for developing children in terms of different aspects of child health and wellness.  

Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University and a team of American and Chinese researchers reanalyzed a number of previously published studies to examine two potential hypotheses about the effect of bedroom media:

  • Displacement hypothesis: Children who spend significant amounts of time watching television or playing video games tend to spend less time on more prosocial activities as a result. This can include anything from doing homework, participating in sports or extracurricular activities, spending time with family, or taking part in other social activities. This also means a greater tendency towards obesity due to lack of exercise and poorer eating habits. Since children with televisions or video games in their bedrooms typically engage in more screen time overall, the amount of displacement this leads to will be much greater than for children without access to bedroom media. This can mean poorer health and lower grades since children who spend too much time with television or video games will also have less time for studying and homework.   
  • Content hypothesis: This hypothesis argues that it is the specific nature of the media content that children watch that is most likely to affect how they think or behave. Research has already demonstrated that violent movies, television shows, and video games can lead to greater aggression in adolescents and, naturally enough, children and adolescents who put in more screen time courtesy of bedroom televisions and video game consoles are going to be more adversely affected as a result. Since parents are less able to monitor what their children are doing in the privacy of their own bedrooms, this also means they are less able to prevent children from being exposed to potentially harmful media.   

To examine the different ways that bedroom media can affect children, Gentile and his co-researchers examined three already-published longitudinal studies on media and child development. All three studies gathered data on bedroom media though the results had not been included with the other published conclusions.  

  • The first study followed 430 children who were recruited along with their teachers from five public and private Minnesota schools. The sample was made up of 119 students in the third grade, 119 students in the fourth grade, and 192 students in the fifth grade. The students were almost evenly divided between males and females.  The participants were followed for six months and researchers collected data on bedroom media, how much time they spent watching television or playing video games, aggressive behavior (based on self-report as well as ratings by peers and teachers), as well as violence ratings of their favorite television shows, movies, or video games.    
  • In the second study, 1,323 participants of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade children from 10 elementary schools were recruited with their parents, and followed for 13 months.  As with the first study, participants were questioned about bedroom media, exposure to media violence, how much time they spent each week watching television and playing video games, Body Mass Index (BMI) scores, and how many minutes they spent each week reading for fun. Teacher ratings on academic performance and aggression were also collected for each participant.   
  • The third study included 3,034 children and adolescents recruited from 12 different schools in Singapore.  The sample included 2,179 males and 819 females with an average age of 11.2. Over the course of two years, students provided data on video game use, including whether they had a console in their bedrooms. They also provided information on average sleep time, how they scored on a measure of video game addiction, violent game play, and overall physical aggression.

In all three studies, children who put in excessive screen time (whether watching television or playing video games in their bedrooms) tended to do more poorly  over the course of the school year (as measured by teacher ratings). Children who had bedroom televisions or video game consoles also had higher body mass index (BMI) scores than children without bedroom media and also appeared far more prone to Internet Gaming Disorder and physical aggression. These results were largely the same regardless of child's age, gender, or country of origin. Longitudinal results also showed that the effects of bedroom media persisted for two years or more. Based on these findings, Gentile and his co-researchers stressed that bedroom media should be taken seriously as a significant risk factor in child and adolescent development.

As for the displacement and content hypotheses, results largely supported both hypotheses. Not only did BRM children spend relatively less time reading and sleeping than non-BRM children, but the greater exposure to violent content that comes with spending more time with violent television shows and video games also appears to make children and adolescents more prone to aggressive behavior.  While the actual cause of Internet Gaming Disorder is harder to identify, bedroom media and handheld devices can provide children with 24-hour access. 

Though more research is definitely needed, there is no question that the steady media bombardment most children experience these days can lead to potential problems as a result. Also, while professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have long recommended against children having televisions or video game consoles in their bedroom, the increasing affordability of televisions, video games, and other digital devices means that more children than are being affected.  What this means for their future development is something that remains to be seen.

References

Gentile, D. A., Berch, O. N., Choo, H., Khoo, A., & Walsh, D. A. (2017). Bedroom Media: One Risk Factor for Development. Developmental Psychology.  Advanced online publication

You are reading

Media Spotlight

Can Coping With Stress Help You Live Longer?

New research suggests how we handle stress can help prevent premature death.

What Does Marijuana Legalization Mean for Adolescents?

New research explores substance use in adolescents following legalization.

How Dangerous Is a Broken Heart?

New research explores the link between relationship breakup and suicide.