Is too much screen time harming children? Western study finds link to anxiety, depression
Research finds parental stress is connected to screen use
A new report from Western University has found too much screen use is having an impact on children's mental health.
The findings are concerning but parents can take steps to modify the impact, said Emma Duerden, Canada Research Chair in Neuroscience and Learning Disorders, who led the study.
The study from Western's faculty of education collected data from more than 200 Canadian families over a year during the pandemic, from November 2020 to November 2021, revealing skyrocketing screen use.
"Children who spent more time on screens were more likely to present symptoms of anxiety and depression," she said.
Parents reported mental health concerns in children such as worrying, anxiety about upcoming events, stress in social situations, fear of the unknown and loss of interest in daily activities.
Children who use screens early on are more likely to use screens later on as it becomes part of the day-to-day, she said.
Researchers found parental stress is also a factor. Children who spent more time on screens who had parents reporting high stress levels were also likely to have anxiety and depression, Duerden said.
"The more stressed parents were, the more likely their children were to spend more time on screens," she said.
"This has been a crisis time," she said. "Parents were unbelievably stressed and the stress ratings were off the charts."
To take hold of screen time, Duerden recommends:
- Be aware of guidelines and research on the link with children's mental health
- Monitor how much screen time children are exposed to
- Have screen-free zones in the home, especially in bedrooms to not disrupt sleep
- Have scheduled screen-free times
- Model the behaviour you want to see in children
"Children see what their parents are doing," Duerden said. "It's also important just for parents to model the behaviour they want to see in their children. It's important for the whole family to be monitoring their overall screen time use.".
An important message is it's not about blaming parents, it's about awareness, she added.
"This is a public health issue that not many people are aware of. It's about spreading this information for parents to make informed decisions about their children's screen use."
Screen time for children under two years old is not recommended, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society, with the exception of chatting with caring adults.
For children between two and five years old, it is suggested to limit screen time to less than an hour per day. For children older than five years old, guidelines suggest screen time should be less than two hours per day.
Duerden's earlier research found children's screen time skyrocketed through the pandemic, even after restrictions changed.
Children's recreational screen time had tripled in the early stages of the pandemic, with parents reporting children on screens even 13 hours per day — almost every waking minutes, she said.
"We were astounded," she said. Those findings motivated Duerden to keep studying children over time.
Researchers expected to see a decrease as restrictions lifted, but parent surveys came back as consistently high.
This has become a global health issue, she said.
"This may indicate a trend. We may see this more in the aftermath of the pandemic due to high screen time use."
The study was co-authored by Diane Seguin and Amira Hmidan.
With files from Allison Devereaux