Media are once again the worst source of scientific facts. The news teaches us today that playing too much video games “psychologically harms” your children (Too Much Screen Time Harms Kids Psychologically, Too Much TV Time Psychologically Harms Kids: Study). Most of the articles that cite this “fact” do not refer to their sources at all. After a bit of searching I found the research paper that this news is based on. It is published in the November issue of Pediatrics by a researcher called Angie Page and her fellows. If you want to check it out yourself, search for “Children’s Screen Viewing is Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity”. I cannot link directly to the article, as you need permission to access it.
Now, the title of the paper might have tipped you off on why the media drew the wrong conclusion. The researchers found a relation between screen time and psychological difficulties. I think there is also a relation between gravity and us not floating into space. Do you think that the fact we are not floating into space is causing gravity? It is an absurd example, but it makes clear that you cannot draw cause-effect links between factors when you only know they are related. Also, there could always be a third factor at play that is causing both of the results you see. The researchers mention this weak point in their research themselves:
“The main limitation of this study is its cross-sectional design, because we could not determine whether higher levels of screen entertainment were associated with the development of negative well-being or negative well- being preceded higher levels of screen entertainment.”
Also, nearly 2000 kids were selected for the research but only a bit over 1000 were eventually included. For instance, some kids did not fill out the questionnaires properly, and other kids did not follow instructions. Such a huge drop in the sample size makes is hard to believe it was a reliable sample that made it into the research results in the end. This in turn makes the research less reliable. On top of that, the kids were only tested for 7 days. That was the ideal, but kids with as little as 3 days of testing were also included in the results. Now consider the real life scenario here: You had a bad week, maybe a fight with a friend, so you don’t feel good and do not want play outside. You want to play a game to take your mind off of things. If you are this kid, then you will labeled as having high screen time and low psychological well-being, but is your situation really that unnatural?
Now, I’ve mentioned some weak points of the research, but it is pretty decent work. Doing psychological research on children is notoriously hard and the researchers did most everything by the book. The only thing that is questionable about this whole affair is the conclusions that are being drawn. This research shows an interesting correlation between high screen time and low psychological well-being among kids when observed over a week’s time. There are loads of possibilities for interesting follow-up research: Are these results the same when you observe the kids over longer periods of time or are these phases that they go through? Does screen time make kids psychologically worse off, or do unlucky kids get glued to the screen? Does it matter what kids are watching during their screen time?
All in all, the media are drawing completely false conclusions from a decent piece of research. The only thing this research found was that there is some sort of relation between low psychological well-being and high screen time when observing young kids for a few days. If you want to draw the right conclusions from this, then simply try to raise a happy and balanced child. “Hiding the TV remote and games console controller” only feeds into unfounded hysteria. Common sense goes a long way.