JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Nov 1;6(11):e2341502. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.41502.
IMPORTANCE: Children’s exposure to screen time has been associated with poor mental health outcomes, yet the role of genetic factors remains largely unknown.
OBJECTIVE: To assess the extent of genetic confounding in the associations between screen time and attention problems or internalizing problems in preadolescent children.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS: This cohort study analyzed data obtained between 2016 and 2019 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study at 21 sites in the US. The sample included children aged 9 to 11 years of genetically assigned European ancestry with self-reported screen time. Data were analyzed between November 2021 and September 2023.
EXPOSURE: Child-reported daily screen time (in hours) was ascertained from questionnaires completed by the children at baseline.
MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES: Child psychiatric problems, specifically attention and internalizing problems, were measured with the parent-completed Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist at the 1-year follow-up. Genetic sensitivity analyses model (Gsens) was used, which incorporated polygenic risk scores (PRSs) of both exposure and outcomes as well as either single-nucleotide variant (SNV; formerly single-nucleotide polymorphism)-based heritability or twin-based heritability to estimate genetic confounding.
RESULTS: The 4262 children in the sample included 2269 males (53.2%) with a mean (SD) age of 9.9 (0.6) years. Child screen time was associated with attention problems (β = 0.10 SD; 95% CI, 0.07-0.13 SD) and internalizing problems (β = 0.03 SD; 95% CI, 0.003-0.06 SD). The television time PRS was associated with child screen time (β = 0.18 SD; 95% CI, 0.14-0.23 SD), the attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder PRS was associated with attention problems (β = 0.13 SD; 95% CI, 0.10-0.16 SD), and the depression PRS was associated with internalizing problems (β = 0.10 SD; 95% CI, 0.07-0.13 SD). These PRSs were associated with cross-traits, suggesting genetic confounding. Estimates using PRSs and SNV-based heritability showed that genetic confounding accounted for most of the association between child screen time and attention problems and for 42.7% of the association between child screen time and internalizing problems. When PRSs and twin-based heritability estimates were used, genetic confounding fully explained both associations.
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Results of this study suggest that genetic confounding may explain a substantial part of the associations between child screen time and psychiatric problems. Genetic confounding should be considered in sociobehavioral studies of modifiable factors for youth mental health.