September 24, 2023


More than 700 children aged 8 to 16 who self-reported their screen use during the first 7 to 10 days after an injury were studied to see if there were any associations with the symptoms that children and their caregivers reported throughout the subsequent six months.

Too much screen time can slow children’s recovery from concussions, but new research from UBC and the University of Calgary suggests that banning screen time is not the answer.

More than 700 children aged 8 to 16 who self-reported their screen use during the first 7 to 10 days after an injury were studied to see if there were any associations with the symptoms that children and their caregivers reported throughout the subsequent six months.

The kids that recovered from concussion symptoms the quickest had moderate amounts of screen time. “We’ve been calling this the ‘Goldilocks’ group,” said Dr Molly Cairncross, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow working with associate professor Dr Noah Silverberg in the psychology department at UBC. “It appears that spending too little or too much time on screens isn’t ideal for concussion recovery,” she added. Our research demonstrates that the conventional advice to keep children away from smartphones, computers, and televisions as much as possible may not be the best course of action.

The research was carried out as part of a wider concussion initiative called Advancing Concussion Assessment in Pediatrics (A-CAP), which was sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and headed by psychology professor Dr Keith Yeates at the University of Calgary. The data came from individuals between the ages of 8 and 16 who visited one of Canada’s five emergency rooms after suffering a concussion or an orthopaedic injury, like a sprained ankle or broken arm.

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The inclusion of kids with orthopaedic injuries served the objective of comparing their healing to that of the group who had suffered concussions.

However, within the concussion group, it was not only a case of symptoms getting worse with more screen usage. Patients in the concussion group often had more severe symptoms than their orthopaedic injury counterparts. Children who spent less time watching screens recovered more slowly as well.

“Kids use smartphones and computers to stay connected with peers, so complete removal of those screens could lead to feelings of disconnection, loneliness and not having social support,” Dr Cairncross said. “Those things are likely to have a negative effect on kids’ mental health and that can make recovery take longer.”

In contrast to a study conducted in the United States last year, the UBC/Calgary study examined screen use and recovery over a longer time. A previous study that only looked at the first 48 hours of screen use and the first 10 days of symptoms concluded that screen time hindered recovery.

The longer timeline led to another interesting finding, described by Dr Silverberg:

“The amount of time spent in front of 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 another type of injury reported similar symptoms, regardless of their early screen use.”

The researchers also noticed that other variables, such as the patient’s sex, age, sleep patterns, physical activity, or pre-existing symptoms, tended to impact symptoms more than screen usage.

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“Screen time didn’t make a lot of difference relative to several 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 much more for their recovery than keeping them off their smartphones.”

In the end, the research indicates that stringent limitations on screen usage may not be beneficial for kids and teenagers who have suffered concussions.

The researchers advise employing moderation, the same strategy as with other pursuits, as an alternative.

One can always restrict screen time if symptoms worsen.

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