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Children’s mental health may suffer if they spend too much time on electronic devices, study suggest

By Shiv Sudhakar

Published December 30, 2021

Increased electronic screen time was associated with worse mental health issues in children compared to those with lower levels of screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent JAMA Network Open paper published this week.

The researchers conducted a longitudinal cohort study between May 2020 and April 2021 among 2026 Canadian children between the ages of two to 18 years old, measuring primary outcomes with depression and anxiety and secondary outcomes with conduct problems, irritability, hyperactivity, and inattention.

Parents completed repeated questionnaires about their children’s mental health during the pandemic, documenting how long their children spent watching television or the time their children spent on electronic devices, including digital media time, video games, electronic learning and also video-chatting time.

"Compared to children and youth with lower screen use, those with higher screen use had higher levels of mental health symptoms," study co-author Dr. Catherine S. Birken told United Press International (UPI).

"The more time kids spent on screens, the larger the effect was," Birken added.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and Canadian Pediatric Society recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours of screen use per day, but Birken noted daily screen time among children and teenagers in the study was "substantially above the suggested limit of less than one to two hours per day."

The authors noted these results are partly explained because the study was conducted in the midst of the pandemic when schools were closed for several months in Canada, but even after the schools reopened, the increased screen time appeared to have lasting effects.

In those who watched television or used electronic devices more than two or three hours per day, the younger children (with a mean age of almost six years old) were more likely to have conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention issues, while the older children were more likely to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, and inattention.

High levels of video game time were associated with depression, irritability, inattention, and hyperactivity, which was consistent with several pre-pandemic studies, according to the paper.

The study has several limitations, including the study design (which tested only for associations, so it cannot say increased screen time actually caused mental health problems), the population studied (as the researchers only studied Canadian children of European ancestry), and because a majority of the children had a mental health diagnosis prior to the study, their own mental health challenges could have alone contributed to their higher screen time.

The authors concluded, "In this cohort study, different types of screen use were associated with distinct mental health symptoms in children and youth during COVID-19, suggesting that not all screen use is equal. Our findings may help inform public health guidelines that consider different forms of screen use in prevention of mental health disorders in children and youth during the pandemic."

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