PROBLEM: In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin channeled parents' fears over their young children's use of technology: Spend too much time with TVs and iPads, and a lovable toddler "could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can't make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend."
We're all pretty convinced, by now, that too much screen time is bad for children. But how much is too much? Is it just TV, or should we be threatened by video games, too? Is it worse if it's violent? Mindless? Does calling it educational make everything better?
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METHODOLOGY: For guidance on these neurosis-inducing conundrums, researchers at the University of Glasgow turned to a representative sample of 11,000 U.K. children born at the dawn of the new millennium, and thus more or less guaranteed to have been raised in television's glow. Data on how much time kids spent watching TV and playing electronic games, as reported by their mothers, was collected when they were five.
The mothers also rated their childrens' psychological health and social ability on a ten-point scale; once when they were five, and again when they were seven. The researchers analyzed the kids' psychosocial adjustment in terms of how much screen time they had spent at age five. They accounted for as many alternative explanations as possible, from socioeconomic factors to carefully modeled intangibles like "family functioning" and "household chaos."
RESULTS: There was a small but significant .13-point increase in "conduct problems" -- antisocial behaviors like fighting, bullying, lying, cheating, and stealing -- at age seven for kids who watched three or more hours of TV per day at age five. The same didn't occur for excessive play with electronic games. And neither was associated, either positively or negatively, with the childrens' emotional symptoms, hyperactivity/inattention, ability to make friends, or prosocial behaviors like empathy and concern for others.
IMPLICATIONS: Three hours is a lot of time, especially for a 5-year-old, and only 15 percent of the children in the study spent that much time or more in front of the TV. Then again, fewer than 2 percent of the children watched zero TV (while over three percent exceeded 7 hours). As a whole, they spent less time playing computer and video games, with most playing for less than an hour per day and about a third not playing at all.
The risks they found are small, and they failed to look at the content of the shows and games occupying their subjects' time, but the authors write that parents' worries about TV exposure are "justifiable." If the question is whether kids who binge on Sesame Street will be better prepared to learn without it affecting their ability to get along in the classroom, their answer is a tentative "no."
"Do television and electronic games predict children's psychosocial adjustment? Longitudinal research using the UK Millennium Cohort Study" is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.