Too much screen time linked to ADHD, aggression, anxiety in children

Calgary, AB – Too much screen time increases the risk of behavioral problems in children such as ADHD, aggression, anxiety and depression, according to a new study.

Children prefer electronic media to reading, playing and interacting with family and peers. Scientists at the University of Calgary say this impacts their social development – leading to ‘internalizing’ or ‘externalizing’ behaviors.

“The increasing rate of screen time in early childhood has raised concerns among clinicians, policymakers, and parents about its possible effects on children’s mental health,” the authors write. “This study found small but significant correlations between screen time and children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. The magnitude of these correlations is comparable to that found in other meta-analyses of the association between screen time and child language skills and academic performance.

The scientists pooled data from 87 studies around the world, involving 159,425 children under the age of 12. Externalizing issues such as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and aggression increased by 11% with increasing amount of screen time. Rates of anxiety, depression and other related mental disorders – known collectively as internalizing conditions – increased by 7%.

“We found stronger correlations between screen time and externalizing problems in boys compared to girls,” the paper said.

Aggression, for example, can be more easily shaped by boys through gender stereotyping.

“Furthermore, we found studies measuring aggression had larger effect sizes than those measuring [ADHD] symptoms. When watching on-screen media, children can be exposed to inappropriate content, aggression and violence,” the authors continue. “Consistent with social learning theory, children may become desensitized after repeated exposures and model aggressive or violent content toward others.”

Parents should pay more attention to children’s screen time

The guidelines suggest parents monitor screen time and ensure content is age-appropriate. They should also limit their exposure to violence, communicate with their children about inappropriate images, and adopt healthy device habits.

“The effects of screen time on the mental health of children have been rigorously debated. Some publications suggest that screen time may be associated with risk of poor mental health outcomes by displacing sleep and physical activities as well as social exchanges and learning opportunities known to promote wellbeing. “says the study. “Screen media may also impede self-regulation strategies and increase arousal levels due to rapid and intense audio-visual effects, which may be associated with inattention and aggressive behavior. However, it has been suggested that concerns about screen time and its effects on children’s mental health are not empirically substantiated due to conflicting research findings and methodological flaws.

More rigorous techniques and approaches are essential to further explore the content and context associated with children’s mental health in a rapidly changing digital world.

“As screens become normalized in childhood and contemporary culture, the risks associated with their use may become less significant for children’s behavioral problems,” the authors conclude. “Additionally, today’s parents can be more informed and in better control of screen time and content with knowledge of the guidelines.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Reporting by South West News Service editor Mark Waghorn.

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