Two new studies show associations between screen time and behavioral and psychological risks for children, adding to a growing body of evidence that excessive use of smartphones and other devices can be deleterious to their health.
In one study, researchers reported a link between screen time and higher rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnoses among preteens. In the other, the results suggested that using electronic devices to calm youngsters when they’re upset may inhibit their ability to learn to soothe themselves, leading to more frequent, intense emotional outbursts.
The studies, published in separate journals on Monday, followed their young participants to observe the effects of screen time over months or years.
The study on OCD was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and tracked more than 9,200 children for two years, starting at ages 9 to 10. Researchers logged how much time the kids spent on devices and found that 4.4% qualified for a new OCD diagnosis.
The odds of developing the disorder over the study period increased by 15% for every hour a kid played video games, and by 11% for every hour that they watched videos, according to the findings.
Texting, video chatting and social media use were not connected with a higher risk of developing OCD, but that may be because this cohort did not yet use these much, the authors pointed out.
“Kids who are spending a lot of time playing video games, to some extent, even developing a video game addiction, I think that those kids report that they feel the need to play video games more and more and they’re unable to stop even if they try,” said lead study author Dr. Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. “Those kids can develop intrusive thoughts about video game content.”
But participants who developed OCD had symptoms that extended beyond their screen use, he said, and it’s possible that kids predisposed to OCD are simply more likely to use screens.
According to the International OCD Foundation, about half a million kids and teenagers in the United States have OCD, a disorder in which intrusive thoughts repeatedly enter people’s minds, leading them to behaviors they feel the need to do repeatedly.
The researchers noted that they found an association between OCD and streaming videos on devices but not with traditional television-watching.
“YouTube uniquely allows for compulsive viewing of very similar content,” Nagata said. “It allows a kid to be really hyperfocused in one content area, and that can develop into obsessions and compulsions.”
The correlation with OCD was present across genders, he added.
Why using devices to calm kids may backfire
The other study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, looked at children ages 3 to 5. Unlike previous research that examined the effects of screen usage, this one focused on parents giving children devices during “emotional moments — times when the kids were crying, whining and needing some help calming down,” said lead study author Dr. Jenny Radesky.
Radesky, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said “device-calming” was correlated with an increase in emotional outbursts in certain children: generally young boys and kids who already show hyperactivity, impulsiveness and intense reactions when angry.
These kids “have bigger emotions,” she said. “They’re more likely to just want something and want it now, and are honestly harder to parent.”
The study included 422 parents and 422 children. Data collection ended in January 2020, with participants followed for six months.
Devices can backfire because they can calm children and distract them during tantrums, but they may not deter them from repeating such outbursts, Radesky said.
“Whenever a negative behavior is followed by something pleasing, that’s going to unintentionally and accidentally reinforce it,” she said.
Instead, parents can try other techniques, Radesky suggested, including giving their child a hug or having them do exercises like jumping on a trampoline.
The results do not mean parents have to eliminate screen time from their children’s lives, Radesky added.
“You want them to learn other ways of managing their emotions,” she said. “At the same time, parenting is hard. So, yes, use it as a tool, but it’s not the only tool that you have.”
Steps parents can take
The two studies are not cause for panic, but their findings reinforce the importance of seeking balance in a child’s life when it comes to smartphones and tablets, said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, who was not involved in either study.
“What people need to remember is the more time that kids are on screen, that means there’s less time that they’re getting a lot of things that we know are incredibly important for child development, including interaction with adults, sleep, opportunities to read and conversations that are more interactive with nonverbal cues,” he said.
Nagata reiterated that.
“Just because their kid is playing video games doesn’t mean they’re definitely going to develop OCD,” he said. “There’s some kids who have 10 hours or more of video games every day. That really can add up.”
Radesky, meanwhile, encouraged parents to talk through their children’s feelings with them.
She said that if parents are noticing that kids, “specifically your boys, are struggling with handling frustration or knowing what to do when they’re having a big emotion or getting really frustrated when they can’t do something on their own, take a moment to label the feeling.”
Then, ask kids what they can do to address that emotion, she added.
“Giving them that sense of mastery takes more time than mobile devices do, but that is really a mindset I hope parents have toward a child who’s really showing difficult behaviors,” she said.