Evaluating computer screen time and its possible link to psychopathology in the context of age: A cross-sectional study of parents and children.


Background: Several studies have suggested that high levels of computer use are linked to psychopathology. However, there is ambiguity about what should be considered normal or over-use of computers. Furthermore, the nature of the link between computer usage and psychopathology is controversial. The current study utilized the context of age to address these questions. Our hypothesis was that the context of age will be paramount for differentiating normal from excessive use, and that this context will allow a better understanding of the link to psychopathology. Methods: In a cross-sectional study, 185 parents and children aged 3-18 years were recruited in clinical and community settings. They were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding demographics, functional and academic variables, computer use as well as psychiatric screening questionnaires. Using a regression model, we identified 3 groups of normal-use, over-use and under-use and examined known factors as putative differentiators between the over-users and the other groups. Results: After modeling computer screen time according to age, factors linked to over-use were: decreased socialization (OR 3.24, Confidence interval [CI] 1.23-8.55, p = 0.018), difficulty to disengage from the computer (OR 1.56, CI 1.07-2.28, p = 0.022) and age, though borderline- significant (OR 1.1 each year, CI 0.99-1.22, p = 0.058). While psychopathology was not linked to over-use, post-hoc analysis revealed that the link between increased computer screen time and psychopathology was age-dependent and solidified as age progressed (p = 0.007). Unlike computer usage, the use of small-screens and smartphones was not associated with psychopathology. Conclusions: The results suggest that computer screen time follows an age-based course. We conclude that differentiating normal from over-use as well as defining over-use as a possible marker for psychiatric difficulties must be performed within the context of age. If verified by additional studies, future research should integrate those views in order to better understand the intricacies of computer over-use.