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expert reaction to systematic review and meta-analysis on the association between screen time and behavioural problems in children

A study published in JAMA Psychiatry looks at screen time and behaviour problems in children aged 12 and below.


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

“This is the latest in a very long line of studies that attempts to draw together a large and mostly uninformative research literature. Overall, the study suggests around 1% of variability in psychosocial problems are correlated with different forms of screen time.

“There is nothing of note here that was not already covered in a systematic review of literature reviews on this very same topic commissioned by the UK’s CMO Dame Sally Davies in 2018 and 2019. None of the major limitations of this research literature identified in the 2019 systematic review of reviews are discussed in this article.

“The authors are right to call for more data but scholars working on this topic, for years, have been calling for the same but wrong to claim that statistical significance of the overall result is informative in anyway.

“Until we have high quality data from online technology platforms, we won’t be able to say much more than 99% of the mental health and well-being of young people has nothing to do with how much time they spend with digital screens.”


Prof Russell Viner, Professor of Child and Adolescent Health, UCL, said:

“This is a comprehensive and high quality systematic review in an important area where there is a very large number of studies, often small and of poor quality. This excellent review therefore brings some coherence to a very mixed literature. The authors found evidence of small associations between time children spent on screens and both emotional and behavioural problems. This is not new of course, and the associations found were really rather small, which is reassuring. Furthermore, this type of research cannot tell us whether it was the emotional and behavioural problems that led to children spending more time on screens (as can happen), or whether more time on screens leads to children having more problems. This is a very complex area and simplistic conclusions that screentime leads to problems are not warranted. Previous research has suggested that ‘screentime’ itself is probably not the issue but rather that problems may result more from the content watched on screens, and the displacement of physical activity, face-to-face socialisation and sleep. For many children, as for we adults tapping away on our computers, screens can be a positive source of education and entertainment.

“Finally, it is important that these findings are not mistaken for evidence relating to social media, as this was not directly studied here.”



‘Association of Screen Time With Internalizing and Externalizing Behavior Problems in Children 12 Years or Younger’ by Rachel Eirich et al. was published in JAMA Psychiatry at 15:00 UK time on Wednesday 16 March.

DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.0155



Declared interests

Prof Andrew Przybylski: “My research is currently supported by the Huo Family Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/T008709/1 & ES/S00324X/1). In the preceding five years I have also worked on research grants provided The British Academy, John Fell Fund, The Diana Award, The Leverhulme Trust and the children’s charity Barnardo’s.

“During this period, I have also engaged unpaid consultations with several organisations including UNICEF, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Facebook Inc., Google Inc., Epic Games, UKIE, The ParentZone, UKRI, DCMS, The Office of the Chief Medical Officer, The Academy of Medical Sciences, and the UK Parliament.

“I conduct my research in line with the University’s academic integrity code of practice.”

Prof Russell Viner: “Prof Russell Viner is on the Science Media Centre advisory board. No other declarations of interest.”


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