In a recently published study, Dr Nature is human behaviorResearchers conducted an umbrella review of over one hundred meta-analyses to understand the effects of electronic media exposure and screen use on youth and to provide guidance on electronic screen use to parents, caregivers, teachers, and policy makers.
Study: An umbrella review of the benefits and risks associated with youth interaction with electronic screens. Image credit: Ternavskaia Olga Alibec/Shutterstock.com
Historically, the reception of any novel technology or idea, such as books, schooling, or radio, has involved some degree of skepticism, anxiety, disbelief, and sometimes hysteria.
Books were thought to harm and confuse children, while schooling was thought to be tiring for children’s brains. While reading became an acceptable activity, the invention of the radio was considered to confuse and negatively affect children’s reading habits.
Similar arguments are now being made against the use of electronic technology among children, and one of the main concerns of parents in Western countries is excessive screen use among children.
Current research presents conflicting results about the effects of screen use on children. Although television viewing is thought to be harmful to children’s mental and physical well-being if excessive, other forms of screen exposure such as online communication such as Zoom and even video games have been reported to be beneficial.
Lack of clarity about the impact of screen use on youth and the fact that the use of electronic technology now permeates most aspects of life such as education, employment and entertainment, requires a comprehensive assessment of the risks and benefits of screen use.
About the study
In the current study, researchers conducted an umbrella review of several meta-analyses that examined the effects of screen use in youth and children.
They did not limit the outcomes examined in the review, and this broad approach helped them gain a more holistic view of how screen use affects different aspects of children’s lives.
Meta-analyses involving participants between zero and 18 years of age or a mean study population of 18 years that examined the use of a wide range of electronic screens such as televisions, computers, gaming consoles, mobile phones and tablets were included in the review.
Included studies examined all types of content, such as movies, television programs, recreational games, video chat and other content for communication and homework.
Studies that examined non-clinical consequences of screen exposure on children with clinical conditions, such as using electronic devices for learning, were included. However, studies examining the use of electronic technology for clinical treatment were excluded. All results are reported in risk-benefit analyses.
Risk of bias assessment was conducted after extracting relevant data from the meta-analysis.
Furthermore, a statistical classification method was used to determine whether the effect sizes of the included studies were reliable, with a combined sample size of over one thousand participants and a non-significant test of bias as reliability criteria.
Incorporating multiple life domains such as home and school in the synthesis provides parents, caregivers, and educators with information for evidence-based development of guidelines for electronic technology use among children.
The study suggested that evidence of the risks and benefits of electronic technology use was mixed in the education domain. The association between screen use and literacy was mostly negative, when parents also participated in technology use with their children.
In health-related domains, numerous small negative associations were observed, such as increased depression associated with social media use.
While device type, content, or context were not specified, the results indicated potentially harmful associations between screen exposure and domains such as literacy, general education, mental health, and body composition.
However, the results were more nuanced when the exposures were examined separately. While television viewing, in general, was associated with lower literacy, viewing educational content with parents was associated with improved learning.
Similar patterns were observed for content such as video games, indicating that the role of parents in selecting the range was an important aspect of the association.
Social media has consistently shown negative associations with health and no potential benefits in any context. It was associated with harmful outcomes such as risk taking, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and mental health problems.
In contrast, screen-based learning interventions were consistently associated with beneficial outcomes, highlighting that content is an important aspect of understanding the impact of electronic technology use.
Overall, the results suggested that the effects of electronic technology use varied based on content and context. The use of television was beneficial for learning when viewed by parents and the content was educational.
Social media, however, was consistently associated with negative effects on mental health, substance abuse, and risk-taking behavior.