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Children’s experiences with digital technologies
Children’s experiences with digital technologies

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5 Effects on health and wellbeing

This is a photograph of a man and two children using a tablet and laptop.
Figure 5

In this section, you will learn about the effects of digital technologies on children’s health and wellbeing. A core question often raised is whether screen time is good or bad for children. Screen time refers to the time spent in front of a screen such as television, a mobile phone, a tablet or a computer. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (2019) in the UK reviewed 940 abstracts of studies that examined the relationship between children’s health and television screen time, including 12 systematic reviews. This review revealed weak associations (correlations and not causal links) between higher screen time and a less healthy diet, higher obesity rates, more depressive symptoms, poorer educational outcomes, lack of sleep and fitness. Increased or uncontrolled screen time can displace activities such as socialising, good sleep and exercise, as time spent in front of the screen can be at the cost of other activities. Therefore, a lack of time to engage with activities such as socialising, good sleep and exercise can explain the above associations. Similarly, a study examining the use of social media, in particular Facebook (Allcott et al., 2019), showed that face-to-face interactions and watching television increased when users (no age details were given) stopped using Facebook for four weeks while self-perceptions about wellbeing increased. Overall, available evidence suggests that screen time explains only a small percentage of children’s general health and wellbeing whereas factors such as sleep, physical activity, eating, bullying and poverty are shown to strongly relate to health and wellbeing.

Is there an ‘ultimate’ or ‘safe’ amount of time children should spend in front of a screen? Organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society have made specific time recommendations based on the age of the child, yet these have been criticised as not being grounded on research evidence. That is, there are yet no studies showing that, for example, a certain screen time duration can result in or relate to negative consequences for children. The role of parents or guardians becomes of significant importance here as they can ensure a balance between different activities including digital, physical and social ones, as well as choosing the content children interact with on a screen. The role of adults will be explained further in the next sections.