When Does Digital Use Harm Child Mental Health and Socioemotional Well-Being?
It is now common knowledge that children are engaging more with digital media than in the past. Nowadays, instead of spending time watching TV, children have a wide variety of digital technologies and activities available to them. What are the effects of this new digital landscape? A new study published in the journal Child Indicators Research by Melissa Bohnert and Pablo Gracia (Trinity College Dublin) asks whether this change has been detrimental for the well-being of children, and whether the effects are the same for all children. The study focuses on patterns and effects of digital use on the mental health and socioemotional well-being of children aged nine years old across two Irish cohorts included in the Growing Up Ireland Study: the 1998 cohort (interviewed in 2007/08) and the 2008 cohort (interviewed in 2017/18).
The authors found that digital engagement can have moderate negative effects on children’s mental health and socioemotional problems, but these effects were found to vary largely depending on the quantity and quality of these digital activities.
Regarding the quantity of time, spending more than three hours a day of screen time, either in digital activities or TV, is associated with important declines in child mental health. Yet, moderate amounts of TV or digital screen time are not found to have detrimental effects on children’s socioemotional well-being. The study also finds that the negative effects of high levels of screen time on child mental health problems are stronger for children from the youngest generation (born in 2008) than for children born ten years before (in 1998).
As for the quality of digital engagement, the specific digital activities in which children participate play a role in their mental health and socioemotional well-being. For example, spending time on media consumption activities (e.g. watching YouTube videos, other videos or downloading apps) has detrimental effects on child mental health. Other digital activities, like doing homework, gaming, socializing and searching for information on the internet, have neither positive nor negative associations with children’s mental health outcomes.
Finally, the study finds that children’s media and digital engagement differs between boys and girls and between children coming from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds. However, the mental health of children of different genders and social classes are not harmed differently by their quantity and quality of digital engagement.