A new international scientific review questions whether screen time has the negative effects we once believed, and proves we don’t really know how technology affects our health because the body of evidence we have is flawed.
Until now, a large number of studies has demonstrated that spending too much time on screens – and specifically “low-quality” screen time, such as watching TV shows or playing video games – is associated with poorer educational achievements, behavioral problems and worse mental and physical health.
A new major scientific review published in the journal Nature Human Behavior questions the accuracy of these conclusions. Researchers from England, South America, the U.S. and Norway, who conducted the review, say that it is actually impossible to determine if screen time is detrimental to mental health because there just isn’t enough reliable information.
Until now, the vast majority of research on how technology affects health and well-being was based on self-reported data, with participants estimating how much time they spend on screens every day.
In the new review, researchers sought to determine the accuracy of this self-reporting method. They asked, how do people’s perceptions and self-reporting of their screen time compare with what actually occurs? To answer this question, the researchers identified every existing study that compares logged or tracked media use measures with equivalent self-reports. They screened over 12,000 articles for inclusion and found 47 studies that included both types of measures.
The review found that participants’ estimates of screen use were only accurate in about 5% of the studies.
The researchers also investigated whether questionnaires and scales addressing “problematic” media use, such as excessive or “addictive” media use, were suitable substitutes for logged usage. They found an even smaller association with usage logs for these measures.
Research that requires participants to estimate their own digital screen time cannot provide reliable information on mental health impact, researchers concluded.
“For decades, researchers have relied on estimates of how we use various technologies to study how people use digital media and the potential outcomes this behaviour can lead to. Our findings suggest that much of this work may be on unstable footing,” said lead researcher Dr Doug Parry at Stellenbosch University.
“The screen time discrepancies highlight that we simply do not know enough yet about the actual effects (both positive and negative) of our media use. Researchers, journalists, members of the public, and crucially policy makers need to question the quality of evidence when they consider research on media uses and effects. We can no longer simply take claims of harmful effects at face value.”
Bottom line: We have much less credible evidence about how screen time really affects adults and children than we realized. In reality, researchers still do not understand how technology affects our health and well-being.