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How does the time children spend using digital technology impact their mental well-being, social relationships and physical activity? An evidence-focused literature review

The first part of this paper reviews existing knowledge on how the time children spend using digital technology impacts their well-being, in order to understand when and why digital technology has a positive or negative influence on children. This is relevant as children’s engagement with digital technology is increasing in all parts of the world, together with concerns about whether this is healthy or harmful. The methodology used is an evidencefocused literature review which includes studies of children aged 0-18. In addition to summarizing existing evidence, the paper emphasizes the methodological limitations that exist in this area of research. The literature is reviewed in light of these limitations to determine how much it can truly tell us about the impacts on child well-being. The paper highlights that methodological limitations need to be more carefully considered in research, attributing the general lack of conclusive evidence to such limitations. The paper offers concrete recommendations on how research in this area might be improved.

The second part of the paper engages with the hypothetical idea of addiction to technology, in light of increasing concerns that some children’s excessive engagement with digital technology may be a mental disorder that could cause significant long-term harm. The theoretical assumptions underpinning this body of research are reviewed together with existing knowledge around risk-factors. Methodological limitations, which are particularly severe in this area, are also given due consideration. The popular-science notion that digital technology may re-wire or hijack children’s brains is also scrutinized, drawing on recent neuroscience evidence.

A broad definition of digital technology is used in this paper. It includes digital devices such as computers, tablets and mobile phones, as well as the many digitally mediated activities that children today engage in via these devices, such as using the internet, going on social networking sites, chatting online or playing video games. Television is considered separately. Child well-being is considered a multi-dimensional concept, which in this paper covers mental/ psychological, social and physical dimensions. The paper does not consider in depth the impact that specific content or online experiences may have on children. While recognizing that these are important factors in determining the outcomes of children’s online engagement, this paper focuses specifically on the impact of time use.