6 hours of screen time a day for teens may not be so bad, research suggests
Published Monday, February 13, 2017 1:51PM EST
From texting with friends to playing video games on the TV to completing homework on the computer, screens have become an inseparable part of many teenagers’ daily routine. Although many parents believe they should limit their children’s time in front of screens, new research suggests it may not be all that bad for them.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends children watch television for no more than two hours a day and The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), until recently, suggested only two hours or less of screen time for children and youth. The AAP updated their guidelines in 2016 to advise parents to limit their children’s screen time so that it doesn’t interfere with exercise and sleep.
New research from Stetson University in Florida is attempting to change parents’ perspectives on screen use by examining the effects of screen use on adolescents in the U.S.
The study, published in Springer’s journal Psychiatry Quarterly last week, found that teenagers (aged 12 to 18) using a screen for six or less hours a day were not significantly impacted in other areas of their lives such as their grades, fitness level, mental health or propensity for risky behaviour.
The study’s lead author Christopher Ferguson from the department of psychology at Stetson University analyzed data from 6,089 teenagers in the 2013 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey in Florida, a confidential annual survey funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that monitors adolescent behaviour. The survey asked participants about their screen time, sleep habits, grades, eating patterns, mental health, physical activity and risky behaviours such as fighting at school, carrying weapons, taking drugs and having sex or driving while intoxicated.
Ferguson said the study found that low to moderate screen time of six hours or less didn’t increase teenagers’ risk for negative results.
“Although we certainly want to have parents balance their children’s screen use with exercise, getting adequate sleep, socialization, academics, it doesn’t look like screen time use is one of the major predictors of behaviour problems in kids,” Ferguson said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca from Florida on Monday.
The research did find that excessive use of more than six hours of screen time a day was related to depression, delinquency and lower grades, but not the other outcomes. However, the study stressed that the negative effects related to excessive screen time were very small and affected males more than females.
“Those effects were so small that they might be really kind of trivial. The correlations are there but they’re so tiny they don’t really tell us much about what really makes kids engage in these kinds of aggressive behaviours or have depression or things like that,” Ferguson explained. More than six hours of screen time only resulted in a 0.49 per cent variance in delinquency, a 1.7 per cent disparity in depressive symptoms and a 1.2 per cent difference in grade point average. There wasn’t any influence on risky driving, sex, drug abuse or eating disorders.
“Although an 'everything in moderation' message when discussing screen time with parents may be most productive, our results do not support a strong focus on screen time as a preventative measure for youth problem behaviors," Ferguson wrote in the study.
The lead author also wrote that imposing unrealistic limits on children’s screen time may foster guilt in parents unable to meet such guidelines. Ferguson also said that’s important for children to become “intimately familiar” with screen technologies as they are increasingly embedded in everyday life.
"Setting narrow limits on screen time may not keep up with the myriad ways in which screens have become essential to modern life,” he wrote.
Ferguson added that parents need to be aware that a lot of the time different uses for screens is combined for children. For example, they may be chatting with friends while they’re working on their homework.
“It’s really hard to pull apart what we might call productive screen use versus entertainment screen use,” he said.
He also stressed that it’s important for parents to remember that screens really aren’t as concerning as many other issues affecting adolescents.
“For the most part, if screens were as bad as people sometimes think, things ought to be a lot worse than they are,” Ferguson said.