Spending too much time in front of a television, computer or other devices with screens may signal problems in a child's family and personal wellbeing, according to a new study.
Based on data for more than 3600 children in eight European countries, researchers found that family functioning and emotional wellbeing were especially linked to changes in the amount of time kids spent in front of screens.
The study's lead author said they can't say what factors may be behind the associations. "We really need to do a little bit more digging in this area before we can answer some of the basic questions," Trina Hinkley told Reuters Health.
Hinkley is a research fellow at the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University in Melbourne. Several recent studies have highlighted the possible negative effects of kids spending too much time watching televisions, playing video games and working on computers.
Specifically, screen time has been linked to differences among children in weight and sleep quality. Late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also urged parents to keep tabs on their children's media use and limit screen time to no more than one to two hours of high quality programming.
For the new study, researchers from the Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants Consortium analyzed data on kids who were between two and six years of age when they entered the study between September 2007 and June 2008.
At that time, the parents completed questionnaires about their children's media use and wellbeing - including the child's emotional and peer problems, self-esteem and family and social functioning. Parents answered another questionnaire two years later.
Overall, the researchers found that for social and peer-related measures, screen time had no effect. But for each additional hour or so of screen time parents reported, a child's risk of emotional and family problems rose up to two-fold.
"We found that family functioning and emotional problems did seem to have some association with electronic media, but the others didn't show any association at all," Hinkley said.
Linda Pagani, who was not involved in the new study but has researched screen time among children, cautioned that there may be other explanations behind some of the results. "It could be that families who used screen time more were families who weren't functioning that well to begin with," she said.
Pagani is psychologist and senior researcher at Saint-Justine's Hospital Research Center at the University of Montreal in Canada. She also cautioned that the results are based on the parents' reports, which are subject to inaccuracies.
Despite the study's limitations, however, Pagani said there are several drawbacks to letting children have a lot of screen time, including sleep disturbances and lost face-to-face communication time.
"My message is, the brain is very dependent on human social interaction and this excessive screen time on a computer or television may be at the detriment of time for other people," she said.
She also endorsed the two-hour rule set by the AAP, but cautioned that screen time shouldn't be right before bed. "As a clinician, as a parent and a psychologist, use that two-hour rule, but make sure those two hours don't occur right before bed, because they're losing precious sleep time," she said.