Which Type of Screen Time Is Most Harmful to Kids?

Two decades ago, families had few electronic screens in the home: the television and maybe a computer with dial-up Internet.

Now, because of the prevalence of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and video game consoles, children can be online and linked up every minute of the day. But parents who worry about how much screen time their children are getting should also consider just how their kids are using those devices.

“For many parents of teenagers sequestered in darkened bedrooms for hours and days, surrounded by arrays of Internet-wired screens ranging from matchbox to cinema size, the issue of the potential harm of exposure to electronic media is a burning one,” Tim Olds, a professor in the Division of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia, said in a statement.

Emerging research shows that too much technology-laden sedentary time can negatively affect a child’s mental, emotional, and physical health. But not all screens are created equal.

New research shows that kids who play video games typically fare better than those who choose noninteractive television watching.

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The Mental and Physical Well-Being of Screen Junkies

Two recent studies published in JAMA Pediatrics examined the link between a child’s well-being, body mass index (BMI), and electronic media use. 

The first study used data on 3,604 children ages two to six in eight European countries.

While results varied between boys and girls, researchers said increased levels of media use predicted poorer well-being, including lower measures of self-esteem, family functioning, and in-person social networks.

Researchers found that watching television on weekdays or weekends was more consistent with poor outcomes than playing video games or spending time on the computer.

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Mom—Not Dad—Is the Boss

The second study examined how screen time was tied to a child’s weight. The researchers examined the media monitoring patterns of 112 mothers and 103 fathers, and the effects on 213 children, observed at ages five, seven, and nine. The study found that the more time the child spent in front of the screen, the higher his or her BMI, which is a rough estimate of body fat content.

Interestingly, the study found that if moms monitored the child’s media viewing time—on both the TV and computer—a child was more likely to have a better BMI at age seven. However, a father’s intervention had no effect on the outcome.

“This supports the validity of our interpretation that child media time has direct effects on BMI, is under substantial control by parents, and therefore is a prime target for family intervention,” the researchers concluded.

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Screen Use Is a Mixed Bag

Long before the invention of television, thousands of people would lock themselves away in their rooms to read books. While new electronic media is replacing books as the cornerstone of learning, it is presenting its own challenges. And science is sorting out what those challenges entail.

Olds said, “In one of our studies, having a television in the child’s bedroom was associated not only with poor well-being, low physical activity, more snacking, less sleep, and increased fatness in the child, but also with increased fatness in parents.”

As illustrated by the first JAMA study, many people find a community online, whether through the Internet or socially interactive video games with multiple live players.

Another study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that children with autism, who tend to be naturally antisocial, spent 62 percent more time watching television and playing video games than their siblings who don't have autism. They also spent little time playing games with others or being active on social media.

Experts like Olds say a child’s excessive screen time may be a red flag for other problems.

“It may also be that media use is a marker of poorly regulated households, with low health literacy and suboptimal parenting practices,” he said.

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