A Small or Large Impact?
The Headmaster of Stowe, Anthony Wallersteiner ,in the Times, over the Christmas break, articulated his concerns about the amount of screen time young people routinely enjoy , and its possible negative impact on their mental well- being. He wrote ‘There is little doubt that this is having an impact on the way children behave and interact, with potential consequences for their mental health. A study from the University of California found that children who went five days without exposure to technology were far better able to read human emotions than those who had access to their computers and phones’ . He added ‘ A University of Oxford study of 120,000 UK 15-year-olds found that while heavy use of technology was linked to lower wellbeing, among those who were the lightest users a limited increase in time online was associated with better mental health’ .
Its true that a lot has been said by scientists and paediatricians about the possible dangers of teenagers spending time on digital devices or computers, but what about the hard evidence? The 2017 Oxford study actually concludes that there is little robust evidence to back up the claims about the dangers. The co-authors from Oxford and Cardiff universities claim that they are the first to systematically test for links between well-being and screen time measured continuously, separately for different digital activities and days of the week.
They have proposed the Goldilocks theory: that there is a point between low and high use of technology that is ‘just right’ for teenagers when their sense of well-being is boosted by having moderate amounts of screen time. The researchers suggest this may be because digital connectivity can actually enhance creativity, communication skills and development. Their paper concludes that more than ‘moderate’ time can be linked with a negative effect on well-being, but they estimate this is a ‘small’ effect at 1% or less – equivalent to one third of the positive effect on well-being of a good night’s sleep or regularly eating breakfast. So, their findings suggest that the relationship between screen time and well-being is weak at best, even when young people overuse their digital devices.
The paper was published in the journal, Psychological Science in 2017.
On 4th January 2019 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), which oversees the training of specialists in child medicine, produced guidance for under-18s on screen time . It said there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” to health, as is sometimes claimed. While there are associations between higher screen use and obesity and depression, the college said it was not clear if this link was causal. The college said it was not setting time limits for children because there was not enough evidence that screen time was harmful to child health at any age. Overall, it found the effect of screen time on children’s health was small when considered next to other factors like sleep, physical activity, eating, bullying and poverty. It did recommend that children should not use the devices in the hour before bedtime because of evidence that they can harm sleep.