The Problem with Studies on Screen Time

Studies on the effects of screen time often fail to consider the vastly different demands imposed upon the user by the type of content consumed. While some content encourages users to consume it passively, other modes of screen time challenge users to learn, create and solve problems.

Even all passively consumed content cannot be taken as equal in every respect: watching an educational video might engage a user differently than an otherwise similar video. Playing a video game is more interactive than watching a video, but each game is composed of unique challenges: some require planning, reasoning and problem-solving while others rely more heavily on fine motor skills and visual acuity. Social media applications offer an entirely different experience, with users shifting from consuming to producing content and experiencing unique social pressure. It is clearly unreasonable to treat all modes of screen time as equivalent, yet this has often been precisely the approach of the scientific community.

In this study from 2018, researchers sought to address the impact of movement patterns on cognition in children. Toward this, data was collected on screen time without regard to the nature of that screen time. Predictably, these researchers concluded that “[m]eeting the … movement recommendations was associated with superior global cognition” and that screen time limits might be used to increase movement. One headline in the Washington Post read, “Study links restricting screen time for kids to higher mental performance”, despite the fact that the study more closely linked physical activity with improvements in cognition. If the goal is to make more time for movement, a child could cut reading time just as easily as screen time: both are sedentary activities. Are we to conclude that restricting reading time would lead to “higher mental performance"?

In this more recent study published in 2019, data was collected in a way that differentiated among various modes of screen time, but this data was aggregated and only analyzed as a single measure of general engagement. In the end, very little evidence of correlation was found, leading to headlines like, “Teens 'not damaged by screen time', study finds” from BBC News, or “Adolescent Wellbeing Unaffected by Screen Time, Study Finds” from the Psychology and Behavioral Health Learning Network. However, since the analysis in this study did not consider the various impacts of specific modes of screen time, it is entirely possible that the consumption of some screen content is beneficial to adolescent well-being while other content is detrimental. These headlines echo a conclusion that this study is not rigorous enough to support.

The time spent in front of digital devices may have the potential to greatly influence the lives of children growing up in the world of today. Considering all screen time as equal, though, oversimplifies the problem and leads to wrong-headed conclusions. Common sense would lead one to believe that learning to program in Python would impact a child differently than watching videos on YouTube, keeping up with friends on Instagram or playing a game of Fortnite. More nuanced studies are needed to accurately assess the potential benefits and disadvantages of consuming specific types of screen content.