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Spending more time in front of screens may not affect kids' behavior, study finds

Experts say that there could be social benefits to kids’ increased screen time

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Photo (c) Ksenia Shestakova - Getty Images
While recent studies have found that too much screen time can impact kids’ performance in school, it may not be a detriment to their overall behavior or socializing skills. 

In a new study, researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that a lot of time in front of screens doesn’t have a negative impact on kids’ mental health and may actually be a benefit to their friendships. They also learned that academic performance, behavior, and sleep are only slightly impacted by electronics. 

“A number of papers in recent years have suggested that screen time might be harmful for children, but there have also been some reviews that suggest those negative effects have been overestimated,” said researcher John Hewitt. “Using this extensive dataset, we found that yes, there are relationships between screen time and negative outcomes, but they are not large and not dire.” 

What are the effects of screen time?

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 12,000 children enrolled in the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development study. The kids completed mental health assessments and answered questions about their screen time, and their parents provided information on their grades and overall behavior. 

The study showed that there were links between screen time and behavioral issues, but the researchers explained that there is more to the data than meets the eye.

Sleep and behavior were both negatively affected by too much screen time; however, many kids may try to distract themselves with their phones when they’re awake in the middle of the night, and parents may try to use screens as a way to help kids calm down. This means that screen time may not be the culprit when it comes to poor sleep or behavioral issues, but they are connected.

The researchers explained that although screen time can impact many parts of kids’ lives, the effects of spending a lot of time with devices aren’t necessarily detrimental long term. It’s also important to note that things like behavior and sleep can be impacted by other life stressors — not just screen time. 

“These findings suggest that we should be mindful of screens, but that screen time is likely not inherently harmful to our youth,” said researcher Katie Paulich.

Additionally, the study showed that some online activities actually help kids form closer bonds. Things like playing games together or connecting on social media can foster closer relationships among friends. 

Though many parents struggle with screen time limits, the researchers encourage consumers to think about kids holistically rather than sticking to specific guidelines. 

“The picture is unclear and depends on what devices, which activities, what is being displaced, and, I strongly suspect, the characteristics of the child,” Hewitt said. “I would advise parents not to be overly concerned about their kids spending a few hours a day on their devices.” 

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