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Does Screen Time Affect Academic Performance Among Youth?

Research demonstrates that the answer is complicated.

 Monkey Business/Adobe Stock
Source: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

Today’s young people are immersed in a digital world that most of us couldn’t imagine a decade ago. Because technology is evolving so quickly, it’s difficult to measure its impact on youth development.

A systematic review published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics asks the question: How do screen-based activities affect academic performance in children and adolescents?

It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that this is a difficult question to answer. The researchers found 58 cross-sectional studies with more than 480,000 participants to include in the review. They combined 30 of those studies to conduct a single meta-analysis.

After combining all of the data, the authors concluded that, on the whole, more screen time was not associated with poorer academic performance. But the researchers did find that how young people are using their screens matters. For example, watching television and playing video games led to worse academic performance whereas other activities, such as interacting on social media sites, did not.

The review showed that different types of screen-based activities should be analyzed separately.

Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at the BCTR, wrote a commentary, also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, about the review. In the article, Whitlock and co-author Phillip Masur of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, explain that it is incredibly difficult to measure the effects of screen time because so many of our daily tasks are accomplished using screens.

“Talking to someone remotely, looking through magazines, reading a book, managing banking, playing games, and connecting with friends, all discrete activities before the current age, now frequently include some screen interaction,” they write.

Because measuring the effects of screen time is so complex, the results of these types of studies often vary based on how the study is conducted and which analytical methods were used. In order to provide meaningful conclusions about the effects that screens have on the lives of youth – and all of our lives – researchers need to better understand why someone is using a device, what type of technology is in play, the specific context for the content and the broader context of screen use, Whitlock said.

“Technological interfaces are an indelible part of daily life and are increasingly used for every imaginable purpose,” Whitlock said. “It is thus inevitable that the study of technology in human development will require innovative approaches for differentiating complex effects. Such approaches are on the horizon but not yet in widespread use.”

Understanding the nuances of technology use will require an entirely new type of research where social and computer scientists work together to find reliable ways to track and understand people’s habits around screens, Whitlock said.

The take-home message: It’s difficult to access how overall screen use impacts youth’s academic performance. There is solid evidence that watching television and playing video games leads to poorer academic performance. But in order to understand the larger factors at play, researchers need more nuanced ways to track and understand how young people use technology.

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