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expert reaction to screen time and inattention in preschoolers

Research published in PLOS ONE demonstrates that screen time above two-hours at five years of age is associated with an increased risk of problems such as inattention.

Prof Andrew Przybylski, Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, said:

“This article analyses data from a Canadian health study and purports to study the relation between screen-based activities and psychosocial problems in young children. The data used is primarily focused on medical outcomes but does feature a single screen-time measure and a single child behaviour measure which form the basis of this paper. Unfortunately, a number of critical shortcomings undermine its value to the scientific literature.

“First and foremost the data are entirely correlational. Screen-time is estimated by caregivers when the children in the study are three and they make subsequent judgments about their children’s behaviour at age five. There is no baseline data on children’s behaviour so it is possible that children who are predisposed to behavioural problems are also predisposed to higher levels of screen-time. The paper does not contextualise this properly.

“Second, these results might just be false positives. There are a large number of statistical tests comparing screen-time to child outcomes and only 25% of these models were statistically significant. In contrast: Child gender, parent SES, parent education, parent stress, maternal depression, physical activity, and whether or not mothers engaged in breastfeeding were significant predictors in every model they were included in. Surely these are more robust factors that should be the focus of the paper?

“Finally, the authors go well beyond their results in providing advice for physicians and educators. The correlations are very small and inconsistent. It is mildly shocking the authors would promote limiting screen-time on the basis of these findings given the evidence in the paper suggests nearly every other factor analysed was a much stronger predictor.

“In sum, the conclusions go well beyond the science. The data is not well suited to study screen time effects. It is not clear that screen-time was a good predictor at all, background factors were consistent whereas screen time was not. Clinical relevance was not established and important factors such as baseline observations are missing. The authors go well beyond the available data and did not share their data or code. It’s really unfortunate to read a paper like this in 2019.”

Dr Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, University of Surrey, said:

“This is another piece of the puzzle on the relationship between screen time and the development of psychological and behavioural issues. While it suggests that children under the age of five who spend an average of two hours or more a day in front of screens are more likely to have an ADHD diagnosis, it does not provide any indication that screen time has caused the issues. As such this study adds to the growing body of evidence that points towards an association between time spent on screens and problems with attention, without suggesting the direction of that relationship. Whilst overuse of the ‘electronic babysitter’ may or may not contribute towards the development of behavioural problems, parents should be mindful of the possibility, and ensure that young children participate in a variety of activities, both on and off screen.”

‘Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study’ by Sukhpreet K. TamanaI et al. was published in PLOS ONE at 19:00 UK time on Wednesday 17th April.

Declared interests

Prof Andrew Przybylski: No conflicts of interest

Dr Bob Patton: No conflicts of interest

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