Is screen time damaging for your kids? No study can tell you that | Oliver Burkeman

Adjusting your behaviour to each new wrinkle in the science is a mug’s game

Is too much screen time bad for your kids? Don’t look to this column for an answer. The truth is, nobody knows. The unceasing pendulum of lifestyle advice is currently swinging through a “debunking” phase, with numerous articles insisting it’s all been a big panic over nothing. But that’s partly because a report published earlier this year, by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there wasn’t enough evidence to give firm guidelines to parents. As the paediatricians explained, though, the key problem is that sufficient high-quality research has yet to be conducted – a conclusion that somehow got turned into this headline, on the parenting website Motherly: “How harmful is screen time for kids? Not as bad as we may think”. The article was sponsored by the US mobile company Verizon – though science has yet to inform us if this was a matter of causation or merely correlation.

Of course, there are valid research findings in this area: there’s evidence that excessive childhood TV time is correlated with obesity and poorer mental health, while social media use probably isn’t often a direct cause of teenage depression. And some studies are better designed than others. But neither opponents nor proponents of screen time have much incentive to mention a more unsettling fact – that it’s almost certainly impossible to know whether too much screen time would clearly damage your kids. The reasons aren’t surprising: human lives are extraordinarily complex things, and no study that aims to say anything meaningful about the population at large can do justice to the innumerable variables at work in your particular family.

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