Guest blog: Does a lot of screen time predict more behavioural and emotional problems in young children?
A recent report appears to show that watching TV has little impact on children's socialisation and behaviour. Here, the report's author Dr Alison Parkes explains more about what her research does (and doesn't) reveal about how screen-time affects children's development.
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There’s been a lot of work on the effects of children’s TV watching in North America, with concerns that too much TV might increase aggressive behaviour, hyperactivity and attentional problems, or cause children to become anxious and upset. These effects might come partly through watching too much adult content, and partly because children who spend a lot of time in front of screens might simply miss out on face-to-face social interactions that are important for their development. There are now recommended guidelines in the US for limiting TV hours in young children – should there be some in the UK too?
We have just carried out the first large UK study to look at whether TV watching or playing electronic games predicted a change in children’s behavioural or emotional problems. We used a nationally representative sample of around 11,000 five year-old children, and measured changes in problems by the time children were aged seven. We looked at the amount of time they spent watching TV and DVDs, and the time playing electronic games. Most five year olds watched TV for between 1 and 3 hours a day, but 15% watched for 3 or more hours. Many children didn’t play electronic games at this age, and only 3% played for 3 or more hours daily. We initially found there were simple associations between hours spent watching TV or playing games with most types of problem. However, there are strong patterns of TV use according to family background, and according to parenting – for example, parents who spend less time interacting with their child are likely to have a child who resorts to the TV more. There are also patterns of TV use that may depend on the child’s own characteristics and temperament.
Once we had accounted for family and child characteristics, most of the link between TV or games with child problems disappeared. There was still an association between watching TV for 3 or more hours a day at age 5 and a very small increased risk of antisocial behaviour two years’ later, at age 7. It could be that this is just the “tip of the iceberg”, and if we had been able to look at what children were watching, rather than just how long they watched for, we would find more of a difference – as the findings do seem to “fit” with some other research suggesting that violent TV content makes children more aggressive.
Of course, some forms of TV and electronic games, especially those designed for children, may be beneficial. One suggested benefit of media exposure, especially electronic games, is that it encourages co-operation, sharing and other prosocial behaviour, but we didn’t find any effects here. We didn’t find any links between electronic games and children’s emotional and behavioural problems, although this could be because few five year-olds play with electronic games for long periods of time. An obsession with electronic games might pose more of a risk for older children.
We can’t from this study say that there should be firmer guidelines for parents on the amount of TV that young children should be watching, but of course this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t always try to keep an eye on what their children are watching, watch TV with their child and talk to them about what they see on screen.
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