Too much screen time can slow children’s recovery from concussion, but new research from UBC and the University of Calgary suggests that banning screen time isn’t the answer.
The researchers looked for links between the self-reported screen time of more than 700 children aged 8 to 16 in the first 7-10 days after an injury and the symptoms reported by them and their caregivers over the next six months.
Children whose concussion symptoms resolved faster had engaged in a moderate amount of screen time. “We called this the ‘Goldilocks’ group, because it seems that spending too little or too much time on screens is not ideal for recovering from a concussion,” said Dr Molly Cairncross, assistant professor at the Simon Fraser University who conducted the research while he was a postdoctoral fellow working with associate professor Dr. Noah Silverberg in the UBC psychology department. “Our results show that the common recommendation to avoid smartphones, computers and televisions as much as possible may not be the best thing for children.”
The study was part of a larger concussion project called Advancing Concussion Assessment in Pediatrics (A-CAP) led by psychology professor Dr. Keith Yeates at the University of Calgary and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The data came from participants aged 8 to 16 who had suffered a concussion or orthopedic injury, such as a sprained ankle or broken arm, and sought assistance in one of five emergency departments in Canada.
The purpose of including children who had orthopedic injuries was to compare their recoveries with the group that had had a concussion.
Patients in the concussion group generally had relatively worse symptoms than their counterparts with orthopedic injuries, but within the concussion group wasn’t simply a matter of symptoms getting worse with more screen time. Even children with minimal screen time recovered more slowly.
“Children use smartphones and computers to stay in touch with peers, so completely removing those screens could lead to feelings of disconnection, loneliness and a lack of social support,” said Dr Cairncross. “These things are likely to have a negative effect on children’s mental health and this can cause recovery to take longer.”
The UBC / Calgary study differed from another study conducted in the United States last year in that it tracked screen time and recovery over a longer period of time. The previous study found that screen time slowed recovery, but only measured screen use in the first 48 hours and symptoms for just 10 days.
The longer timeline led to another interesting discovery, described by Dr. Silverberg:
“The amount of time spent in front of the screens during the early recovery period made little difference to long-term health outcomes.” He said. “After 30 days, children who suffered a concussion or other type of injury reported similar symptoms regardless of their early use of the screen.”
The researchers also noted that the time spent in front of the screen seemed to have less influence on symptoms than other factors such as the patient’s gender, age, sleep habits, physical activity or pre-existing symptoms.
“Screen time didn’t make much of a difference to many other factors that we know can affect concussion recovery,” said Dr. Yeates. “Encouraging concussion patients to sleep well and gradually engage in light physical activity will likely do a lot more for their recovery than keeping them away from smartphones.”
Ultimately, the findings suggest that general screen time restrictions may not be helpful for children and adolescents with concussion. Instead, the researchers suggest using the same approach as other activities, namely moderation. If symptoms flare up, screen time can always be limited.
Materials provided by University of British Columbia. Note: The content can be changed by style and length.