In a study of nearly 12,000 children in the United States, no evidence was found to show that screen time impacted their brain function or well-being.
Using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States, researchers from Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, University of Oregon, Tilburg University, and University of Cambridge analysed the cognitive function of 9-12 year old children alongside their self-reported screen time use.
Published in the Journal Cortex, the research covered a period of two years where participating children estimated the amount of time they spent on digital activities each day. Their responses could range from no time at all to over four hours a day.
Screen time activities included ‘traditional’ screen pursuits such as watching TV shows or movies and using digital platforms such as YouTube to watch videos, as well as interactive pursuits like playing video games. In addition, they were asked about connecting with others through apps, calls, video calls and social media.
Even with participants who had high rates of digital engagement, there was no evidence of impaired functioning in the brain development of the children.
In the ABCD study, the participants’ neurodevelopment was assessed through monitoring functional brain connectivity, which refers to how regions of the brain work together and includes emotional and physiological activities. This was done through MRI scans. Further to this, physical and mental health assessments and information from the child’s caregiver was provided.
When analysing the screen time use alongside the ABCD data, patterns of functional brain connectivity were related to patterns of screen engagement, but there was no meaningful association between screen time use and measures of cognitive and mental well-being, even when the evidential threshold was set very low.
Jack Miller, the first author who analysed the data as part of his thesis at the Oxford Internet Institute said: “If screen time had an impact on brain development and well-being, we expected to see a variety of cognitive and well-being outcomes that this comprehensive, representative, research did not show.”
Professor Andrew Przybylski who supervised the work added: “We know that children’s brains are more susceptible to environmental influence than adults, as digital screen time is a relatively new phenomenon, it’s important to question its impact.”
Professor Matti Vuorre from Tilburg University, a co-author observed: “One thing that makes this work stand out is our analysis plan was reviewed by experts before we saw the data; this adds rigour to our approach.” He added, “One also suggested we take a look at social media on its own because it’s a source of worry for many and we did not find anything special about this form of online engagement.”
Professor Przybylski concludes: “Our findings should help guide the heated debates about technology away from hyperbole and towards high-quality science. If researchers don’t improve their approach to studying tech, we’ll never learn what leads some young people to flounder and others to flourish in the digital age.”
Notes for Editors
The full study is available here.
Work by Andrew.K.Przybylski (A.K.P.) and Matti Vuorre (M.V) was supported by the Huo Family Foundation. Work on this study by A.K.P. and Amy Orben was supported by the Economic and Social Research Organisation (ES/T008709/1). Funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
About the OII
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/
About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and number two in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer. Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
Sara Spinks/Roz Pacey
Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford