Is TV and screen time really bad for kids?
26th March 2013 - Spending a long time in front of a TV or computer screen may not be as bad for child's behaviour and emotional wellbeing as previously thought, according to new UK research.
Previous research linking screen time with behavioural and emotional problems in children has mostly been based on TV viewing and involving children in the US.
Five year-olds who watch TV for three or more hours a day are more likely to be antisocial, but the risk is small. Researchers say caution is still needed on the amount of screen time for kids.
New screen time study
The new study was carried out by Medical Research Council public health experts at the University of Glasgow.
Parents of more than 11,000 children in the UK Millennium Cohort Study recorded the children's typical hours of daily TV viewing, including videos and DVDs, and typical hours of electronic game use at the age of five.
They also filled in questionnaires on children's behavioural conduct, emotional symptoms, relationship problems with other children, hyperactivity or inattention at the ages five and seven.
Almost two thirds of the children watched TV for between one and three hours every day when they were five, with 15% watching more than three hours. Less than 2% watched no TV.
Initially the researchers found that watching more than three hours' TV a day was linked to an increase in behaviour problems, including fighting, disobedience or stealing. However, this virtually disappeared when they adjusted the data for other family influences.
Few problems were found with children playing electronic games for three hours or more, however the numbers doing this in the study were very small.
Small screen effect
"It is a very, very small effect we found," Dr Alison Parkes from the MRC Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow tells us. However, it is possible the way the study was designed didn't pick up all factors. "It could be the tip of the iceberg and if we knew what they were watching, we might find more of an effect."
She admits there's some ambiguity about the results and feels additional research would be beneficial, "with much more detailed measures of what they're actually watching and whether the parents are there."
It could be that the type of programmes watched makes a difference: "There is other research suggesting that provided children are watching programmes that are specially designed for them, there don't seem to be such harmful effects on things like attention problems," Dr Parkes says.
The researchers say links between heavy screen time and a child's mental health may be indirect, rather than directly caused by being in front of a screen for too long. "We've tried to take account of the fact that some parents don't seem to do an awful lot with their children anyway. They don't do activities together, like reading books or playing games. They might be leaving their children to their own devices a lot more and those children are the ones who are watching more television."
Other factors looked at included the 'warmth' of the relationship between the parents and the child and any possible conflict in the home. However, the screen time link to behaviour and emotions was still there. "Even after taking account of different styles of parenting, we do get this very small effect."
Dr Parkes says the study shouldn't be taken as saying it is OK to leave kids in front of the TV for long periods of time: "There is other research pointing to other risks of spending too many hours in front of the television from the point of view of becoming overweight and having cognitive problems to do with language development and educational problems in the future."