Children threatened by too many screens? Science is not so categorical


“Over-exposure of children to screens could be the evil of the century,” a hundred French MPs estimated at a forum in Le Monde in December.

These elected officials belong to the presidential majority of Emmanuel Macron but his text was also signed by opponents from both the right and the left, such as the former Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, as well as personalities such as the singer of the Indochina group. , Nicola Sirkis. .

This broad panel testifies to the widespread repercussions of a concern: children spend too much time in front of screens – computers, smartphones, televisions, etc. – and this jeopardizes their good intellectual development.

Usually expressed for years in a context of booming new technologies, this fear has found a new echo with the Covid crisis. School closures and confinements have especially exposed children to screens, whether in a school or recreational setting.

However, screens have “a detrimental influence on sleep, food or even emotion management”, they also threaten “language acquisition (and) memorization of knowledge”, hammered the signatories of the forum, who presented a bill to the Assembly in late February to carry out awareness-raising actions.

However, these concerns are far from unanimous among psychiatrists and child development specialists. Studies on the subject are numerous, but their conclusions vary widely and their quality is very uneven.

In children under the age of twelve, there is indeed a link between the time they spend in front of screens and possible behavior problems, but this is “weak”, according to a study published this week in JAMA Psychiatry, one of the leading journals of psychiatric research.

A symptom rather than a cause

This study is important because it is not an isolated work among others. This is a “meta-analysis” that includes a large number of pre-existing studies and especially assesses its severity. Their conclusions are, therefore, a priori much more solid than these separate studies.

However, it is precisely the less serious studies that tend to be the most alarmist. According to the authors, these works often tend to “exaggerate the effects (of the screens) for lack of methodological rigor.”

The authors also point out that more recent studies, taken as a whole, show less and less a marked link between screen exposure and behavioral problems.

Certainly, this study admits that there is a relationship between the two phenomena, but “the links found are really light, which is reassuring,” said the British psychiatrist Russell Viner, who did not participate in this work.

Above all, it is very difficult to say in which direction the cause-effect relationship goes.

Do children have problems because they have looked at the screens too much … or do they spend too much time in front of them because they already have problems, for example related to difficulties at home or lack of social life? By targeting the screens, we run the risk of attacking the symptom rather than the cause.

“This is a very complex issue, and we can’t conclude that exposure to screens is causing problems,” said Russell Viner, in a comment to Science Media Center.

“For many children, as for us adults, (…) screens can be a positive source of education and distraction,” he concluded.

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