A new Australian-led study has found that too much TV really does rot your brain. Well, not really — but it can have an adverse effect on the wellbeing of children aged between two and six, with everything from family functioning to self-esteem taking a hit in years to come. The same goes for video gaming and computer use. Not everyone in the scientific community is entirely convinced, however.
Kid gamer picture from Shutterstock
In an attempt to discover whether electronic media is associated with poorer well-being in children, researchers from Deakin University in Melbourne assessed the sedentary effect of TV, computers and video games in children over a period of two years. The study involved more than 3000 children aged between two and six.
According to the researcher's data, children who indulged in more electronic media experienced adverse effects on their wellbeing two years later, including emotional and peer problems, self-esteem, emotional well-being, family functioning and social networks:
Among 3,604 children, electronic media use appeared to be associated with poorer well-being. Watching television appeared to be associated with poorer outcomes more than playing electronic games or using computers. The risk of emotional problems and poorer family functioning increased with each additional hour of watching TV or electronic game and computer use.
Associations varied slightly between boys and girls; particularly in the area of peer-related problems which skewed towards boys. Boys also typically spent more hours in each of the electronic media behaviors than their female counterparts.
"Across associations, the likelihood of adverse outcomes in children ranged from a 1.2- to 2.0-fold increase for emotional problems and poorer family functioning for each additional hour of television viewing or e game/computer use depending on the outcome examined."
The report indicates that restricting early childhood electronic media use could potentially result in a lower risk for poorer outcomes with some indicators of well-being.
These findings seem to vindicate every anti-gaming group and overly strict parent in the country. However, the report has not received a universal stamp of approval from experts. In particular, the size of the study and possible confounding factors such as low health literacy need to be taken into account.
Professor Tim Olds from the University of South Australia's Health Sciences Division classes the findings as "weakish and patchy" while acknowledging that exposure to electronic media may have the potential to cause harm.
"Most studies are consistent in showing that exposure to electronic media increases the risk of overweight and obesity, low levels of physical activity, and poorer adult health," Olds said.
"Our own data from a number of Australian studies have shown similar patterns. What is the link? It may be that electronic media replace social interaction, displace healthier activities like physical activity and sleep, or encourage poor nutritional habits such as grazing (snacks) and guzzling (soft drinks).
"It may also be that media use is a marker of poorly regulated households, with low health literacy and suboptimal parenting practices."
Associate Professor Li Ming Wen from the School of Public Health at University of Sydney offers a similarly mixed response:
“There is a growing body of evidence that supports the association between children’s screen time (television viewing time plus use of computers and electronic games) and childhood overweight and obesity. However, the effect of screen time on children’s psychological and social well-being remains unclear," Wen said.
"The significance of the study was limited due to a small number of study participants and unrepresentative study population. A further exploration of factors influencing children’s screen time, the paternal role in particular, is crucial in preventing childhood overweight and obesity and improving children’s well-being."
In other words, the jury's still out on whether electronic media has a detrimental effect on kids; it seems to mainly depend on overall parenting which makes perfect sense to us. Mario is not the enemy.