Parents may not need to worry about an adolescent’s time spent in front of a screen.
Researchers concluded that screen media activity isn’t “uniformly bad” for 9- and 10-year old boys or girls, according to their analysis of early data in the nationwide ABCD Study. The landmark research is tracking nearly 12,000 youths at 21 sites in the U.S. for social, behavioral, physical and environmental factors that may affect brain development and health.
Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa headed the effort to look at use of social media (texting, video chatting, social networking sites, etc.) vs. general media (television, movies, video games, etc.). Surprisingly, researchers say they found that children who use more social media tend to be more physically active and have less family conflict, fewer sleep problems and fewer thoughts of death.
“Based on these data, I would be very cautious to be overly concerned, at least at this age,” Martin Paulus, president and scientific director of LIBR, told a gathering of parents last week.
LIBR hosted a dinner for families participating in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. Paulus emphasized that the conclusions aren’t causal relationships, meaning there could be other factors influencing findings. Perhaps depression, anxiety or cognitive issues.
Screen media use — combined social and general media — had small effects on other activities, with no effect on art or music. Paulus said at this age sports aren’t competing or being replaced with screen media activity.
Paulus said he was most surprised to find that adolescents who were more active on social media had fewer thoughts of death. He had hypothesized that those youngsters might already feel the effects of judgmental peers or exposure to certain things at a young age.
Studies show the number of teenagers thinking about death and suicide is increasing, he said.
“In teenagers, people have really made the issue that maybe it’s the social media,” Paulus said. “Kids comparing each other, social bullying — that may actually contribute to depression or anxiety or even maybe thoughts of death.”
Nine- and 10-year-olds who used more general media had more family conflict, sleep problems and thoughts of death. The effects were weak regarding family conflict and sleep problems, Paulus said.
He noted there may still be a “dark side” to screen media, but that isn’t shown yet in data.
“There isn’t strong evidence that screen media activity is bad for the kids,” Paulus said.
Alex Paschal, one of the parents who attended Paulus’ presentation, said she is passionate about education and child development. Her daughter Annie, 10, and son Jack, 11, are enrolled in the ABCD Study.
“It’s one of the biggest studies that’s ever been done,” Paschal said. “Having this data available for years will help researchers answer some questions we don’t even know to ask yet is really why I’m most interested in it.
“While the kids get to remain anonymous, if they did discover anything — I’m not concerned about their brains; they have nice healthy brains and are smart academically — but if there was any cause for concern, we’d be able to see it in an MRI. That is what initially brought me to it, but it’s an added bonus.”
Annie tried her hand at a Skee-Ball game available outside the LIBR conference center, which included free pizza and other activities for the participating families.
Annie said she joined at the urging of her older brother and has since learned about MRIs. The sessions with researchers last several hours, with many questions and games.
“I love all the people,” Annie said. “They’re very nice, and they say that nothing I say will leave the room.”
The data were collected over two years, with no follow-up results included yet. The first release of data included 4,000 kids, of whom about 250 were from Tulsa. The next data dump to be analyzed will involve all participants, with 741 enrolled from Tulsa.
Paulus said future study angles will attempt to look at:
• How screen media activity changes during puberty.
• What are warning signs of dysfunctional screen media activity.
• How does screen media activity change the brain.
• How screen media activity affects school performance, as well as relationships with friends and family.