Canadian Study Reveals Link Between Children’s Screen Time and Anxiety, Depression

by EditorT

The study also found that children’s screen time during the pandemic increased to about 6 hours a day, with some using devices 13 hours a day.

A young child is playing an online computer game in his bedroom on November 13, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

By Chandra Philip

A Canadian study has found that children who spend a lot of time on screens are more prone to anxiety, depression, and aggression.

The study also found that children’s screen time during the pandemic increased to about 6 hours a day, with some using devices 13 hours a day. That has since fallen to an average of four hours but is still double the amount of screen time recommended by the Canadian Pediatric Society.

“We were pretty astounded by these findings, but of course, this was a period of crisis for everyone,” lead author Emma Duerden, the Canada research chair in Neuroscience and Learning Disorders, said in a Western University press release.

Further study during the pandemic led the researchers to discover a strong correlation between screen time use and feelings of anxiety and depression.

“Increased screen use in children and high parental stress were associated with increased anxious and depressive symptoms in children,” said the study, published in BMC Psychology. “The highest scores for these internalizing behaviours [were] seen in children who had both elevated screen use and parents experiencing high stress.”

Ms. Duerden said it was a surprise to see such a strong association.

“What we also found consistently in all of our studies was that parent stress was a key predictor of screen time,” she said. “We don’t understand that association yet, it can only be inferred.”

The researchers expect to continue working with study participants to further understand the issue. They’re also reviewing other research from around the world.

“What we found is that this is a global health issue in children, there was no real association with educational or household factors at all,” Ms. Duerden said. “That means there isn’t going to be a one-size-fits-all solution.”

In 2022, researchers identified a “weak but significant” association between screen time and behaviours like aggression as well as emotional issues in children.

The team analyzed 87 eligible studies from 595 articles, totalling over 159,000 participants aged 12 or younger, and uncovered the relationship between screen time and external and internal behaviour problems.

“Although the effect sizes (relationship strength) found in this study were small, the consequences of screen time at a population level are likely meaningful,” the authors wrote.

Externalizing behavioural problems are evident in children’s outward behaviour such as aggression, attention deficit, and hyperactivity. Internalizing behavioural problems during adolescence can impact mood and emotions causing anxiety and depression.

Screen Time Slows Brain Development

Other studies have found that screen time impacts children’s brain development.

Research published in the International Journal of Sociology of the Family in 2021, for example, states that excessive screen time is linked to “atrophy in the frontal, striatal, and insula cortex regions of the brain” and specifically reduction in the thickness of the orbitofrontal cortex.

“Thinning of the orbitofrontal cortex has also been shown to significantly impact memory and can increase the incidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” the paper reads.

Researchers also say they’ve seen a decline in executive functions, like remembering instructions, paying attention, controlling impulses, delaying gratification, and regulating social behaviour.

study in The Journal of Pediatrics found that just one hour of screen time a day can cause diminished executive functions in children as young as 2 years old.

Research published in Preventive Medicine Reports noted that just one hour per day of screen time in children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 17 leads to less curiosity and less self-control, and greater distractibility.

Marina Zhang and Martha Rosenberg contributed to this report. 


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