Children addicted to screens: the ‘evil of the century’? Science puts it into perspective.

Children glued to screens, to the point of threatening their development. The idea regularly worries a number of personalities and political leaders, especially in France, who are calling for it to be a public health problem. However, the scientific data does not support this alarmism.

“Children’s overexposure to screens could be the evil of the century”estimated in December one hundred French deputies of the majority in power in a daily forum The worldalso signed by right-wing and left-wing opponents and personalities such as the lead singer of the Indochine group, Nicola Sirkis.

Children are increasingly exposed

This huge panel bears witness to the impact of a concern: children spend too much time in front of screens – computers, smartphones, televisions, etc. – and this jeopardizes their good intellectual development.

This fear, which has been reflected regularly for years in a context of the emergence of new technologies, has found a new echo with the Covid crisis. School closures and incarceration have particularly exposed children to fencing, both in school and recreational settings.

However, the screens have “a harmful influence on sleep, food or even the control of emotions”, they also threaten “the acquisition of language (and) the memorization of knowledge”, hammered the platform’s signatories. The latter submitted a bill at the end of February to carry out awareness-raising campaigns.

Alarmistic studies that are not accurate

But these concerns are far from unanimous among psychiatrists and child development specialists. There are numerous studies on this subject, but their conclusions vary widely and their quality is very uneven.

In children under the age of 12, there is indeed a link between time spent in front of screens and possible behavioral problems, but this is “weak,” according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatryone of the leading psychiatric research journals.

This research is important because it is not an isolated work among other things. This is a “meta-analysis”, which takes a large number of pre-existing studies and in particular assesses their seriousness. The conclusions are therefore a priori much firmer than these studies individually.

However, it is precisely the least serious studies that are the most alarming. According to the authors, these works often tend to: “exaggerating the effects (of screens) due to lack of methodological rigor”

A causal relationship not so clear

The authors also note that overall, the most recent studies show less and less clear links between screen exposure and behavioral problems. This study certainly admits that there is a connection between the two phenomena, but “the links found are very light, which is reassuring”noted British psychiatrist Russell Viner, who was not involved in this work.

Above all, it is very difficult to say in which direction the relationship between cause and effect is going. Do kids have problems staring at screens too much? Or do they spend too much time with them because they already have problems, such as difficulties in their home or lack of social life? By targeting screens, we risk attacking the symptom rather than the cause.

“It is a very complex subject and we cannot conclude that exposure to screens is a problem”Russell Viner estimated, in a comment addressed to the Science Media Center organization. “For many children, as for us adults, (…) screens can be a positive source of education and distraction”he concluded.


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