Tuesday 22 January 2019

"no good evidence that time in front of a screen is "toxic" to health"

BBC News January 4 2019
Quite a few days back the BBC here in Blighty ran the headline "Worry less about children's screen use, parents told" as part of their coverage of the paper by Neza Stiglic & Russell Viner [1]. This paper - "a systematic review of reviews" no less - set out to "systematically examine the evidence of harms and benefits relating to time spent on screens for children and young people’s (CYP) health and well-being, to inform policy."

Informing policy is just what the Stiglic/Viner paper did (see here), as the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health (RCPCH) concluded that: "Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time" but parents shouldn't necessarily get too stressed if their offspring find some enjoyment in their computer/tablet and/or phone in amongst their busy lives. Indeed it was refreshing to see that children and young peoples' voices were being heard on the potential benefits of screen time, with comments such as: "Gives you knowledge" and "Provides you with more opportunities to reach a wider community." All those hours of watching You Tubers fooling around or building whatever on Roblox or similar platforms can actually be intermixed with something approaching gaining knowledge; i.e. learning. Who knew!

The Stiglic/Viner review paper drew on data from 13 reviews reporting "associations between time on screens (screentime; any type) and any health/well-being outcome in CYP [children and young people]." All was not however completely rosy when the reviews were boiled down to a consensus, as we are told that authors found "moderately strong evidence for associations between screentime and greater obesity/adiposity and higher depressive symptoms" and "moderate evidence for an association between screentime and higher energy intake, less healthy diet quality and poorer quality of life." I don't think anyone should really be surprised that more screen time *might* mean an increased tendency towards being overweight or obese. If one subscribes to the idea that energy in - energy out is at least partially related to being overweight or being obese [2] it stands to reason that unless people are running around whilst using their tablets or phones, there is likely to be less 'energy out'.

As for the 'higher depressive symptoms', well let's just say that this is something else that is no stranger to the debate about screen time, as other recent research has similarly observed (see here). Whether it is the actual use of tablets, phones and/or television or the type of material being accessed [3] *correlating* with depression is a question that needs further investigation. I might add that the scenario of when screen time turns into an addiction also needs to be discussed in this context (see here), bearing in mind the limitations of observational studies in relation to discerning cause-and-effect.

Also: "There is weak evidence for association of screentime with behaviour problems, anxiety, hyperactivity and inattention, poorer self-esteem and poorer psychosocial health in young children." Bearing in mind that 'weak evidence' does not mean 'no evidence', this part of the Stiglic/Viner review paper is also important. It means that sweeping conclusions that screen time is somehow playing a major role in the rise of behaviour problems in children (young and old) are not yet necessarily backed up by the scientific evidence. Indeed, as per other topics on this blog, I'd advance the position that certain facets of screen time may actually be advantageous to quite a few children and young people (see here) who are perhaps not for example, the social butterflies that other children are.

The Stiglic/Viner review and subsequent RCPCH advice does not say that screen time for children is risk-free. It does not say that parents shouldn't be continually asking questions about how long their children spend using screens and/or what material they are accessing. It does however mean that, on the basis of the currently available evidence, parents shouldn't get too stressed about moderate screen use in their offspring. Balance things out with the odd physically active inclined hobby or two (avoiding any tiger parenting notions) by all means, but don't stress too much about their swiping. See the potential positives as well as the potential negatives of screen use, and remember that screen time is an inevitable part of growing up these days...


[1] Stiglic N. & Viner RM. Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews. BMJ Open. 2019;9:e023191.

[2] Malhotra A. et al. It is time to bust the myth of physical inactivity and obesity: you cannot outrun a bad diet. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:967-968.

[3] Kelly Y. et al. Social Media Use and Adolescent Mental Health: Findings From the UK Millennium Cohort Study. EClinical Med. 2019. Jan 4.


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