Too much screen time bad for kids' behavior

Children who spend more than two hours in front of a computer or TV screen are more likely to suffer psychological difficulties, regardless of how physically active they are, researchers find.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
New research suggests that kids who spend more than two hours of screen time a day run a higher risk of behavior problems. kellyv/Flickr

As kids in the '80s, my twin brother and I were allowed to watch about an hour of TV a week, which we typically used up on Saturday morning cartoons and which resulted in near total pop culture illiteracy. The dedicated hour brought on such intense euphoria that one time, when our father fell through the kitchen floor and broke a few ribs (it was an old house), we looked at him, saw he was still alive, and went back to watching Bugs Bunny.

For years this anecdote served as our central argument for more screen time (which soon included our Atari), so long as it was in moderation.

Whilst low levels of screen viewing may not be problematic, we cannot rely on physical activity to compensate for long hours of screen viewing.
--Angie Page, lead author

Well, "moderation" has just been given a number, and it is two hours a day, according to new research out of the University of Bristol's Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences in the UK. Among the 1,000 10- to 11-year-olds studied, more than two hours is related to higher psychological difficulty scores.

The researchers measured psychological well-being via a questionnaire that rated each child's emotional, peer, conduct, and hyperactivity issues. The kids had to respond to statements such as 'I am often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful' or 'I generally play alone or keep to myself' with one of three answers: true, somewhat true, or not true. So the results rely, at least in part, on the kids' abilities to accurately self-report.

Perhaps most surprising is that these numbers were consistent regardless of physical activity levels. Lead author Angie Page says it is time to reconsider the belief that we can balance out screen time with other activities.

"Whilst low levels of screen viewing may not be problematic, we cannot rely on physical activity to compensate for long hours of screen viewing," said Page. "Watching TV or playing computer games for more than two hours a day is related to greater psychological difficulties irrespective of how active children are."

In other words, according to the results of these questionnaires, the kid who spends hours every day playing soccer and constructing tree forts and skipping over sidewalk cracks runs the same risk of behavioral problems as the kid who is couch-bound, so long as they're both dedicating more than two hours a day to watching a screen of some type.

The study, which comes out of the Personal and Environmental Associations with Children's Health (PEACH) project, appears online today in the journal Pediatrics.