We’re often bombarded with panicky stories in the news about the dangers of letting children watch too much television or play too many video games. The scientific reality is that we still know very little about how the use of electronic media affects childhood behaviour and development. A new study from a team of international researchers led by Trina Hinkley at Deakin University might help to provide us with new insights.
The study used data from 3,600 children from across Europe, taken as part of a larger study looking into the causes and potential prevention of childhood obesity. Parents were asked to fill out questionnaires that asked about their children’s electronic media habits, along with various wellbeing measures – for example, whether they had any emotional problems, issues with peers, self-esteem problems, along with details about how well the family functioned. Hinkley and colleagues looked at the associations between television and computers/video game use at around the age of four, and these measures of wellbeing some two years later.
The results are nuanced. The researchers set up a model that controlled for various factors that might have an effect – things like the family’s socioeconomic status, parental income, unemployment levels and baseline measures of the wellbeing indicators. On the whole, after accounting for all of these factors, there were very few associations between electronic media use and wellbeing indicators. For girls, every additional hour they spent playing electronic games (either on consoles or on a computer) on weekdays was associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of being at risk for emotional problems – for example being unhappy or depressed, or worrying often. For both boys and girls, every extra hour of television watched on weekdays was associated with a small (1.2- to 1.3-fold) increase in the risk of having family problems – for example, not getting on well with parents, or being unhappy at home. A similar association was found for girls between weekend television viewing and being at risk of family problems. However, no associations were found between watching television or playing games and problems with peers, self-esteem or social functioning.
So it seems as if these types of media can potentially impact on childhood development by negatively affecting mental wellbeing. However, what we can’t tell from these data is whether watching television or playing games causes these sorts of problems. It may well be the case that families who watch lots of television are not providing as much support for young children’s wellbeing from an early stage – so the association with television or game use is more to do with poor family functioning than the media themselves. Furthermore, the results don’t tell us anything about what types of television or genres of games might have the strongest effects – presumably the content of such media is important, in that watching an hour of Postman Pat will have very different effects on a four-year-old’s wellbeing than watching an episode of Breaking Bad. And as the authors note, relying on subjective reports from parents alone might introduce some unknown biases in the data – “an objective measure of electronic media use or inclusion of teacher or child report of wellbeing may lead to different findings”, they note. So the results should be treated with a certain amount of caution, as they don’t tell us the whole story. Nevertheless, it’s a useful addition to a now-growing body of studies that are trying to provide a balanced, data-driven understanding of how modern technologies might affect childhood development.
Hinkley, T., Verbestel, V., Ahrens, W., Lissner, L., Molnár, D., Moreno, L., Pigeot, I., Pohlabeln, H., Reisch, L., Russo, P., Veidebaum, T., Tornaritis, M., Williams, G., De Henauw, S., & De Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2014). Early Childhood Electronic Media Use as a Predictor of Poorer Well-being JAMA Pediatrics DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.94