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Study: More Screen Time Not So Bad for Children

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - Second-grader Josh Mercado, left, helps kindergartner Erik Hodges, as second-grader Annabelle Davis, right, helps kindergartner Kaidyance Harris, on programming during their weekly computer science lesson at Marshall Elementary School in Marysville, Wash., Nov. 4, 2015.

Until last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that to limit exposure to potentially harmful messages, children and teenagers should engage in no more than two hours of playing video games or watching television per day.

Psychologist Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in Florida points to a lack of data backing up the notion that too much screen time is truly harmful. Still, he said, it's a common public perception.

"There's always this kind of sense of there being a zero-sum game, that the more time our kids are spending with screens, the less time they're spending with academics, the more they're getting exposed to all kinds of antisocial messages or objectionable messages that ... we would not like our kids to be exposed to," he said.

A British study, according to Ferguson, found there was a very small negative effect — about a 1 percent increase — in aggression and depression among kids who engaged in six or more hours of screen time per day.

Ferguson wanted to see whether there was a similar effect among American adolescents. So he and a team of investigators analyzed responses from a survey on risky behaviors given to about 6,000 kids in Florida. Their average age was 16. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the questionnaire.

Data from the 2013 survey found that American children were also fairly resistant to the negative effects of screen consumption.

Small differences

Among those who played video games, watched TV or worked on a computer up to six hours per day, there was a small increase in delinquency of half of 1 percent, a 1.7 percent increase in depressive symptoms and a 1.2 percent negative impact on school grades.

The researchers saw no increase in risky sex or driving behaviors, the use of illegal substances or eating disorders.

"Kids actually can consume a larger amount of media than we kind of thought in the past, kind of up to six hours per day, without there being any noticeable correlation of problematic behaviors," Ferguson said.

The findings were published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.

The pediatric association no longer recommends a limit on screen time, instead suggesting that parents try to strike a balance with beneficial activities such as getting enough sleep, exercising and doing homework.

Ferguson agrees that those things are important, but goes a step further, saying youngsters should become intimately familiar with screen technology, since it has become an essential part of our everyday lives, from academics to work.

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