JAMA Network Open
URL with Digital Object Identifier
Importance: Longitudinal research on specific forms of electronic screen use and mental health symptoms in children and youth during COVID-19 is minimal. Understanding the association may help develop policies and interventions targeting specific screen activities to promote healthful screen use and mental health in children and youth. Objective: To determine whether specific forms of screen use (television [TV] or digital media, video games, electronic learning, and video-chatting time) were associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, conduct problems, irritability, hyperactivity, and inattention in children and youth during COVID-19. Design, Setting, and Participants: A longitudinal cohort study with repeated measures of exposures and outcomes was conducted in children and youth aged 2 to 18 years in Ontario, Canada, between May 2020 and April 2021 across 4 cohorts of children or youth: 2 community cohorts and 2 clinically referred cohorts. Parents were asked to complete repeated questionnaires about their children's health behaviors and mental health symptoms during COVID-19. Main Outcomes and Measures: The exposure variables were children's daily TV or digital media time, video game time, electronic-learning time, and video-chatting time. The mental health outcomes were parent-reported symptoms of child depression, anxiety, conduct problems and irritability, and hyperactivity/inattention using validated standardized tools. Results: This study included 2026 children with 6648 observations. In younger children (mean [SD] age, 5.9 [2.5] years; 275 male participants [51.7%]), higher TV or digital media time was associated with higher levels of conduct problems (age 2-4 years: β, 0.22 [95% CI, 0.10-0.35]; P <.001; age ≥4 years: β, 0.07 [95% CI, 0.02-0.11]; P =.007) and hyperactivity/inattention (β, 0.07 [95% CI, 0.006-0.14]; P =.04). In older children and youth (mean [SD] age, 11.3 [3.3] years; 844 male participants [56.5%]), higher levels of TV or digital media time were associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and inattention; higher levels of video game time were associated with higher levels of depression, irritability, inattention, and hyperactivity. Higher levels of electronic learning time were associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. Conclusions and Relevance: In this cohort study, higher levels of screen use were associated poor mental health of children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. These findings suggest that policy intervention as well as evidence-informed social supports are needed to promote healthful screen use and mental health in children and youth during the pandemic and beyond.