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Earlier today, I read a scientific article in the British newspaper The Daily Mail. The article in question states that one hour of TV/electronic devices can worsen your performance in GCSEs.

A single hour’s TV or internet use each night will worsen a pupil’s GCSE results, research suggests.

In fact, teenagers should not watch any TV at all if they want to do well, according to a leading academic.

For every daily hour of TV, internet or computer game use, students dropped 9.3 points overall across their GCSE subjects. That is the equivalent of two grades – for example, the difference between a B and a D.

Cambridge University researchers also found that physical activity – while not harming educational attainment – doesn’t improve it either.

The article sources a study led by someone named Dr Kirsten Corder, as told here:

The researchers, led by Dr Kirsten Corder, studied 845 pupils from different social classes in a variety of urban and rural areas across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Dr Corder said: ‘Television, computer games and internet use were all harmful to academic performance, but TV viewing was the most detrimental. We can cautiously infer that increased screen time may lead to poorer academic performance for GCSEs.

‘If teenagers or parents are concerned about GCSE results, one thing might be to look at the amount of TV viewing that they’re doing and maybe just try to be sensible about it.’

The article also seems to make a claim that came across as a bit exaggerated, stating that apparently not watching TV at all would be best.

Co-author Esther van Sluijs put it more bluntly: ‘Our results suggest if you don’t watch television you will achieve the best GCSE results to your best potential regardless of what other activities you do.’

The study was allegedly carried out using heart rate and movement sensors to measure activity levels.

Between 2005 and 2007, the scientists measured activity levels of the participants using heart-rate and movement sensors attached to their bodies. They also asked the pupils how much time they spent in front of TV or computer screens, doing homework, or reading for pleasure. GCSE performance was assessed at 16, by adding together all the points students obtained across different subjects.

The thing is, I've always been fairly skeptical about the science reports in the Daily Mail, thought his one warranted some further questioning. How would you, for example, go around this if the homework you were required to do was Internet-based? Wouldn't it be important what you watched on TV, be it a documentary?

So is any of this necessarily true?

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    The study itself was done, link. But, of course, in the time-honed tradition of journalism, causation was mixed up with correlation. The purpose of the study wasn't specifically about TV either, so I wouldn't expect that result to be particularly informative (unlike other results in the paper), but one would have to read the study (and maybe a few more studies) to properly verify and answer. – Ordous Sep 4 '15 at 19:55
  • @Orduous: Is that comment not an answer? – Oddthinking Sep 5 '15 at 3:30
  • Is there a link to the actual paper? – Jacob Swanson Sep 5 '15 at 5:12
  • @JacobSwanson The first link will lead you to the specified article on DM Online, from which you can access the main page. ("The article in question") – nine Sep 5 '15 at 5:13
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    repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/250298 says the paper is under an "indefinite embargo." – Jacob Swanson Sep 5 '15 at 5:48
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Per NHS, this type of prospective cohort study can find associations, but it cannot prove direct cause and effect.

As the study was carried out in 2005, the results may be less relevant to today's adolescents, who generally have wider access to screen-based technology. Overall, this study is unable to prove screen time causes poor academic performance but it has shown a possible link. Parents and adolescents who are interested in achieving the best grades possible may benefit from spending more time on homework and reading instead of focusing on reducing screen time alone.

Also the limitations of the study were

  1. Those with missing data (about 15% of participants had incomplete data and weren't included in the analysis) may have had better mood scores and were less deprived, which may limit how much their results might apply to all adolescents.

  2. Some of the data such as sleep and sedentary behaviour was self-reported which can mean that it is not possible to ensure the data was correct.

  3. The researchers also acknowledge they were not able to take into account that some screen time may have been for home work, revision or other educational purposes.

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