Is too much screen time bad for children’s mental health? The jury’s still out

The Medical Research Council (MRC) study looked at the relationship between timespent watching television or playing computer games and changes in children’s behaviour and psychological wellbeing between the ages of five and seven.

The researchers accounted for other factors that could influence the outcome such as household income, mothers’ education and employment status, parenting behaviours, the parent-child relationshipand the child’scognitive ability, sleep and physical activity.

They found that watching more than three hours’ TV a day at age five predicted a very small increase in conduct problems (e.g. fighting, disobedience or stealing) at age seven, compared to children who watched less than one hour a day, but the same association was not seen for electronic games.

There was no association between any type of screen time and other issues such as emotional problems, inattention and hyperactivity, problems interacting with friends or prosocial behaviour (sharing, helping, co-operating, etc.), and there were no significant differences between boys and girls.

The findings, published today in the journal Archives of Diseasein Childhood, contradict some previous studies, which have linked high screen time to behavioural and emotional problems in children.

Dr Alison Parkes, from the MRC/Chief Scientist Office Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow, said:

“Initially we found that watching more than three hours’ TV a day was associated with an increase in all problems, but this disappeared when we adjusted for other family influences. This is perhaps not surprising given the myriad of factors that impact on a child’s development.

“Our work suggests that limiting the amount of time children spend in front of the TV is, in itself, unlikely to improve psychosocial adjustment. In future it will be important to look at the influence of what children watch on TV, and the role of parents watching with their child and discussing content with them, as well as how much children watch.”

In the US, paediatric guidelines recommend that total screen time should be limited to less than two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programmes. There are currently no formal guidelines in the UK.

This study was the first in the UK to examine the relationship between screenuse and change in mental health in young children over time. Rather than looking at a ‘snapshot’ of behaviour at one time point, this allowed the researchers to look at a change in behaviour over a two-year period.

The mothers of 11,014 children in the UK Millennium Cohort Study recorded typical hours of daily TV (including videos and DVDs) and typical hours of electronic game use at age five. Mothers also completed questionnaires to reporttheir children’s behavioural conduct, emotional symptoms, peer relationship problems, hyperactivity/inattention and prosocial behaviour at ages five and seven.

At age five, almost two-thirds of the children watched TV for between one to three hours daily, with 15 per cent watching for three hours or more. TV and game exposure were correlated, but game exposure was much lower, with only threeper cent playing for three or more hours daily.

Watching TV for three hours or more a day at age five predicted a 0.13 point increase (on a 10-point scale) in conduct problems by age seven compared to watching for under an hour. It was not possible to say from the study whether the relationship was causal.The study relied on mothers’ reporting of screen time and it did not look at the content children watched on TV, or their exposure at weekends.

Professor Hugh Perry, Chair of the MRC’s Neurosciences and Mental Health Board, said:

“We’re living in a world that is increasingly dominated by electronic entertainment, and parents are understandably concerned about the impact this might be having on their children’s wellbeing and mental health. This important study suggests the relationship between TV and video games and health is complex and influenced by many other social and environmental factors. By continuing to invest in this area, the MRC will help scientists to provide the high quality evidence needed to inform future public health policy.”

For more information please contact Hannah Isom in the MRC press office on 0207 395 2345 (out of hours: 07818 428 927) or email [email protected].

Notes to editors

The paper, entitled ‘Do television and electronic games predict children’s psychosocial adjustment? Longitudinal research using the UK Millennium Cohort Study’, by Parkes et al, is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.