Sigman and the skewed screen of death

The media is buzzing this morning with the shocking news that children spend ‘more than six hours in front of screens’. The news is shocking, however, because it’s wrong.

The sound bite stems from an upcoming talk on ‘Alcohol and electronic media: units of consumption’ by evidence-ambivalent psychologist Aric Sigman who is doing a guest lecture at a special interest group meeting at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health annual conference.

Sigman has a track record of being economical with evidence for the purpose of promoting his ‘traditional family values’ and this is another classic example.

The ‘six hour a day in front of the screen’ figure comes from a commercial research organisation called Childwise. It was the headline finding that made all the papers, which is quite convenient if you’re selling the report for £1800 a copy.

But why would you rely on a commercial report when you have so many non-commercial scientific studies to choose from?

A 2006 meta-analysis looked at 90, yes 90, studies on media use in young people from Europe and North America and here’s what it found.

Youth watch an average of 1.8–2.8h TV a day. This has not changed for 50 years. Boys and girls spend approx 60 and 23 min day on computer games. Computers account for an additional 30 min day. TV viewing tends to decrease during adolescence.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t risks to children if they spend large amounts of their time sat on their arse. Time spent watching television has genuinely been linked to poor health. However, it’s better to inform people of the details rather than the panic inducing headlines.

For example, talking about ‘screen time’ is probably not helpful. For example, TV viewing seems increase the risk of obesity more than video games.

It’s also worth noting that researchers are now making a distinction between ‘passive screen time’ (i.e. being sat on your arse) and ‘active screen time’ (i.e. body movement-based video games) with the latter being found to be a likely intervention for obesity.

The devil is in the details, rather than behind the screen.

4 Comments

  1. Posted May 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    The 2006 meta-analysis you cited was based on 90 studies between 1949 – 2004, so I would question how well the results stand up today. It is hard to believe that viewing habits have not changed over 50 years. As more and more mobile platforms come into widespread use, the amount of time that young people spend on media keeps going up. The figure most often cited here in the US re media usage was published in 2010 in a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which used data on 8-18 year olds collected in 2008-2009. It compared against its own media usage study from 2004 and found that just from 2004-2009 daily media exposure increased more than an hour. The KFF study found that
    “Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.

    The amount of time spent with media increased by an hour and seventeen minutes a day over the past five years, from 6:21 in 2004 to 7:38 today. And because of media multitasking, the total amount of media content consumed during that period has increased from 8:33 in 2004 to 10:45 today.” –Excerpted from the news release announcing the findings. Link to the study at http://www.kff.org/entmedia.

    The Kaiser Family Foundation does not charge for its information.

    • hey
      Posted May 23, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      The discussion is not about media, but about television, which is the starting point of the article. Anyway, anyone can strech the range of “media”, why not?. Add radio to the equation, comics and magazines are media too, also going to the movies, or theater, baseball… all those are media.

  2. baz
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Im with jsolodar a 2006 meta analysis of results from 1949 to 2004 have no bearing on current usage. My 16 yo spends 6+ hours in front of a screen (computer, smart phone and some tv.)

  3. Pia Marjukka Laasonen
    Posted May 30, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

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