Are kids threatened by too many screens? Science is not so categorical

Children glued to screens threaten their development. This idea regularly worries many figures and politicians who call for it to be a public health issue. However, the scientific evidence is far from supporting such alarmism.

“Overexposure of children in front of screens can become the evil of the century,” one hundred French deputies assessed in December at a forum in Le Monde.

These elected officials belong to Emmanuel Macron’s presidential majority, but their text has also been signed by opponents from both the right and the left, such as former socialist presidential candidate Benoît Amon, as well as personalities such as Indochine lead singer Nicolas Sirkis. .

This broad panel is indicative of the broad implications of anxiety: children spend too much time in front of computer screens, smartphones, TVs, etc., which compromises their good intellectual development.

This fear, regularly expressed for years in the context of the emergence of new technologies, has found a new reflection in the Covid crisis. With school closures and lockdowns, children are especially exposed to screens, whether at school or in recreational settings.

Anxiety: Children spend too much time in front of screens – computers, smartphones, TVs, etc. – and this endangers their good intellectual development. (AFP/Archive – TAN CHIN Soti)

However, the screens “harmfully affect sleep, nutrition, or even the management of emotions,” they also threaten “language acquisition (and) the memorization of knowledge,” the forum signatories, who submitted a bill to the Assembly in late February for outreach events, scored.

However, these concerns are far from unanimous among psychiatrists and child development specialists. Studies on this subject are numerous, but their conclusions vary greatly and their quality is very uneven.

In children under 12, there is indeed an association between screen time and possible behavioral problems, but it is “weak,” a study published this week in JAMA Psychiatry, one of the leading journals on psychiatric research, shows.

– Symptom, not cause –

This study is important because it is not an isolated work among others. This is a “meta-analysis” that covers a large number of pre-existing studies and evaluates, in particular, their level of severity. Thus, his conclusions are a priori much more solid than these studies taken separately.

The authors also note that the most recent studies generally show a less and less significant association between screen exposure and behavioral problems (AFP - Odd ANDERSEN).
The authors also note that the most recent studies generally show a less and less significant association between screen exposure and behavioral problems (AFP – Odd ANDERSEN).

However, it is the less serious studies that tend to cause the most concern. According to the authors, these works often tend to “exaggerate the effects (of the screens) due to a lack of methodological rigor”.

The authors also note that the most recent research generally shows less and less of an association between screen exposure and behavioral problems.

Of course, this study acknowledges that there is a link between the two phenomena, but “the links found are really subtle, which is encouraging,” commented British psychiatrist Russell Wiener, who was not involved in this work.

First of all, it is very difficult to say in which direction the causal relationship is moving.

Do kids get into trouble because they watch too much screens… or do they spend too much time in front of them because they already have problems, such as difficulties in their home or lack of social life? By targeting the screens, we run the risk of targeting the symptom rather than the cause.

“This is a very complex topic, and we cannot conclude that screen exposure is the problem,” Russell Wiener said in a commentary to the Science Media Center.

“For many children, as for us adults, (…) screens can be a positive source of education and distraction,” he concluded.

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