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Is all that screen time really healthy for our kids ?

In the past 5 years, our use of electronic screens has skyrocketed.  Estimates are that primary school children are exposed to up to 7 hours a day in front of a screen eg computer, IPAD, TV, IPHONE, game player. This compares to basically none 50 years ago. Children often engage in two or more forms of screen viewing at the same time eg watching TV whilst working on a laptop or tablet.

The ramifications of such a significant increase in exposure to screens is not just confined to a lack of exercise and increased risk of obesity, it may also exert far reaching effects on mental health.  This is especially concerning for young children whose neurological systems are still developing.

This article aims to highlight the real health risks associated with excessive screen time for both adults and kids. We may not comprehend the full impact  excessive screen time will have on our children, however it is important we acknowledge how much time they are actually spending in front of screens and become aware of  the risks now to help limit the impact 20 years from now.   

Physical health impacts

Excessive screen time is generally associated with sedentary behaviour, less exercise, less time with others and decreased exposure to nature. For some children this can have an impact on motor skill development, Vit D status as well as social skills.

It is also not surprising to note a link between increased screen time and obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardio vascular disease. These associations are not just limited to adults. Numerous studies of children and adolescents who watch TV for more than 3 hours a day have reported increased BMI, changes in cholesterol, glucose metabolism and cardio vascular risk scores.

In addition to promoting a sedentary lifestyle, prolonged screen time can change eating behaviours.  Watching TV for an extended time can dampen the way the body responds to its natural cues and result in the consumption of excess carbohydrates. This then interferes with glucose metabolism and adversely affects metabolic function. Children’s eating habits can also be influenced by increased exposure to food advertising.

Mental health

There is a growing body of research that suggests that increasing levels of screen time can exacerbate mood and sleep disorders. A study of 5 and 6 year olds found increased  TV exposure (both direct viewing and passive) was associated with shorter sleep duration and increased waking.  

For children, excessive Tv can affect the way information is processed  and interfere with synaptic development in the brain. This can have flow on effects for attention and concentration as well as academic achievement and imagination. One study of 2623 children aged between 1 and 3 found an association between increased TV exposure and a diagnosis of ADHD by the age of 7. And, this study was completed before I-phones were commonly used as baby-sitting devices..     

 Another more concerning issue is the impact excessive screen time can have on a child’s socialisation. Increased time in front of a screen of any type is usually done at the expense of spending time with others. This is particularly evident with social media where many relationships are built online rather than developed face to face. This decrease in actual human contact can affect the way a teen’s brain develops,  reducing the capacity to form mirror neurons( which are involved in  our ability to experience empathy). In the long run diminished mirror neurons may negatively affect a person’s ability to form meaningful relationships.

Prolonged use of video games can effect neurochemistry. We know that the same neurotransmitter (dopamine), associated with drug addiction, spikes in children playing certain video games. Video game addiction is now a recognised psychiatric condition and researchers have linked an increase in aggression and violence with prolonged exposure to certain video games.  

So, how much is too much ?

Our brains reach full maturity by about the age of 25, with 80% development occurring within the first 3 years of life. So, we need to be aware of the impact prolonged screen can have on a developing brain and limit exposure accordingly.

 Researchers suggest the health risks associated with screen time generally occur at greater than 2 hours / day for children.

What can you do ?

It is about striking a balance. Monitor the amount of time children actually spend per day watching Tv, on the I-phone, working on the computer or playing video games. Include passive media (eg Tv during dinner time or whilst doing homework) in your calculation.

Avoid a TV in bedrooms and have the child’s computer located in a common area such as the kitchen. Delay screen viewing in babies / infants for a long as possible and limit the amount of time infants and young children spend on IPADs and I-Phones. Parents of younger children are advised to choose screen material that is slower paced.