Not All Screen Time Is Bad for Kids, but Know the Consequences

Donavyn Coffey

October 23, 2019

Despite common warnings that screen time and social media are bad for children, the effects are likely to be nuanced, according to a new report from the Child Mind Institute.

The report, which is a deep dive into the effects of social media and gaming on child mental health, is intended to take a topic popular in the media and important to parents and "provide the best distillation" on up-to-date science, David Anderson, PhD, a reviewer of the report, told Medscape Medical News.

Written for a general audience, it's an easily digestible resource that clinicians can use and pass on to parents.

Potential parent concerns, such as screen addictiveness, sleep deprivation, exacerbation of eating disorders, and harm to mental health, are addressed in the report. An accompanying handout summarizes the major findings and parent tips. "Have those at the ready," recommends Anderson, senior director of national programs and outreach at the Child Mind Institute. "If at the end of a visit when you only have 15 minutes, the high-level summaries could work as talking points and to give as handouts."

Although research for the report shows clear links between technology use and exacerbation of mental health problems, it also shows that screen time has benefits. Some online time improves the child 's or teen's connectedness and confidence. The data show sort of "a Goldilocks effect," Anderson said. "There's a 'just right' dose." An hour a day can be beneficial, but several hours a day can become problematic, exacerbating sleep and mental health problems.

The report is also useful in aiding healthcare providers to help parents reframe how they think about their child's screen time and technology, says Bradley Grant, DO, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"There's a misconception that parents are gatekeepers of technology," he told Medscape Medical News. But "navigating online is an essential skill for teens to go out into the world today." The goal is to work with children and teens so that they develop the skills to use social media and technology in a safe way that enriches their lives, he said.

The report provides guidance on engaging kids regarding their technology and screen time, rather than just limiting their access.

Some children, though, may have a lower threshold for problematic gaming and social media use, according to the report. For instance, children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disorders are twice as likely to experience cyberbullying. And patients with anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, or ADHD are more likely to overuse social media and experience mood variation.

The report may serve as a valuable resource for physicians to identify and address more vulnerable patients who may need more parent involvement.

"Children and teen communication strategies are changing," Anderson said. "Screens are here to stay." The researchers hope that the report equips clinicians to counsel parents on the risks and the benefits of the technology so integral to their children's lives

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