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What We Don’t Know About Kids and Screen Time

A new analysis proves we don't really know how technology affects kids.

Key points

  • A new review questions whether screen time has the negative affects we onced believed.
  • It finds self-reporting on studies about screen use is highly inaccurate.
  • As a result, much of the research that links screen use to negative consequences is invalid.

At Evidence-based Living, we have covered the topic of kids and screen time fairly extensively. Up until now, a body of evidence on the topic has demonstrated that too much time on screens – and specifically “low-quality” screen time, such as binge-watching television shows or playing video games – is associated with poorer educational outcomes, behavioral problems and worse mental and physical health.

An important scientific review published last month in the journal Nature Human Behavior questions whether these conclusions are accurate. The review was conducted by researchers from England, South America, the U.S. and Norway.

Before we dive into the conclusions, it is important to understand that the vast majority of research on how technology affects users is based on self-reported data—essentially participants estimating how much time they spend on screens each day.

For the new review, the research team sought to determine the accuracy of self-reporting related to screens. They asked, how do people’s perceptions and self-reporting of their screen time compare with what actually occurs?

To answer this question, the research team identified every existing study that compared logged or tracked media use with self-reporting. They found 47 studies with more than 50,000 total participants that included both types of measures.

The review found that participants’ estimates of screen use were only accurate in about five percent of the studies. In addition, they found measures of problematic media use – such as excessive or addictive behavior – have an even poorer correlation with self-reported usage logs.

The new findings, researchers say, cast doubt on the legitimacy of studies that use self-reporting to draw conclusions on screen time, health and well-being. This is especially problematic because this type of research has influenced government and health policy, the authors said.

"These highly flawed studies are overinflating the relationships between digital media use and typically negative outcomes, such as mental health symptoms and cognitive impairments, which of course explains the pervading view that smartphones, among other technologies, are bad for us." said author Brit Davidson, assistant professor of analytics at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom., in a press release.

"Media and technology use takes the blame for everything from increases in teenage depression and suicide to higher incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and violence,” he said. “If we want to properly investigate harms, we must first tackle assumptions about screen time and disentangle how people are actually using their phones or other technologies of interest.”

The bottom line is, we have much less credible evidence about how screen time use affects kids than we realized, explained lead researcher Doug Parry, a professor in the Department of Information Science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

“The screen time discrepancies highlight that we simply do not know enough yet about the actual effects (both positive and negative) of our media use,” he said in a press release. “Researchers, journalists, members of the public and crucially policy makers need to question the quality of evidence when they consider research on media uses and effects. We can no longer simply take claims of harmful effects at face value."

The take-home message: The body of evidence on how media use affects our health and well-being is flawed, and may have led to erroneous conclusions. In truth, researchers still do not understand how technology affects our health and well-being.

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