Does children’s screen time need to be limited? What are the implications?

In many ways, today’s child is growing up in a vastly different world to that of their parents. The majority of us who spent our childhoods prior to the advent of technology grew up in a world that was rich in play, imagination, activity and nature. It was low on tech and high on all things sensory. If we dreamed of being a chef, we ‘baked mud pies.’ If we dreamed of being an explorer, our backyard was transformed into an untamed wilderness in the world of our imagination. If we dreamed of being a princess, we raided the dress up box and so began our adventures.

Research is now showing direct links between screen time and obesity, with the South Australian Department of Health stating that “TV viewing may contribute to overweight and obesity through electronic media displacing other activities such as free play and structured physical activity, increased snacking or increased demand for energy dense foods which are heavily advertised [1].” It also pointed to a study of pre-schoolers aged 1 – 4 that showed a child’s risk of being overweight increased by 6% for every hour of television watched per day [1].

But the weight concern isn’t the only concern associated with screen time. Poorer sleep, social skills, and cognitive skills are also concerns along with the physiological impacts such as poor posture, injuries to the thumbs, wrists and elbows, and deteriorating eyesight [2]. “Research now indicates that for every hour of television children watch each day, their risk of developing attention-related problems later increases by ten percent. For example, if a child watches three hours of television each day, that child would be thirty percent more likely to develop attention deficit disorder [1].

So just how many kids watch more than 2 hours TV per day? Apparently, it’s half of all 5-15 year olds and up to 92% of 12-17 year olds in Australia [2].

Dr Victoria Dunckley, an integrative child psychiatrist, wrote on the matter for Psychology Today and focused on what happens when the child becomes a teen. The article drew together concerning research on excessive screen time and specifically internet/gaming addiction in teen boys. In it, she gave a strong directive to parents:

“In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life – from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills. Use this research to strengthen your own parental position on screen management, and to convince others to do the same [4].”

She is referring to brain scan research findings in screen addiction [4]. Some of the findings include grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced corticol thickness, impaired cognitive function, cravings and impaired dopamine function. This has the potential to impact everything from planning and organisation to impulse control and social functions. This may sound extreme, but other studies are showing just how anxious a teen can get when separated from their smartphone or electronic device [5].

So what do we do about all of this? Go slow, say the experts. It takes time to change habits, and it’s important for parents to lead by example [6]. Among the strategies for reduced screen time are [6]:

  • Unplugged bedrooms, where TV’s computers or devices aren’t allowed
  • Unplugged mealtimes, where families sit and talk to each other rather than binging on the nightly viewing.
  • Screen time schedules, which include no screen time in the hour before bed.
  • Encouraging other activities like reading, board games, puzzles, or outdoor activities.
  • Talking to older children about smart choices with regard to TV, media and the advertising on it.

To Your Health,

www.drbilldavison.com


References

[1] Staff Writer, (2015), “Give the Screen a Rest. Active Play is Best” South Australian Department of Health, retrieved 1 April 2016

[2] Staff Writer (2016), “Switch off the screen,” Healthy Kids (An initiative of NSW Ministry of Health, NSW Department of Education, Office of Sport and the Heart Foundation) retrieved 1 April 2016

[3] Jary, S (2015), “How much screen time is healthy for children?” PC Advisor, retrieved 1 April 2016

[4] Dunckley, V (2014), “Gray matters: too much screen time damages the brain,” Psychology Today, retrieved 1 April 16

[5] Rosen, L (2015), “iPhone Separation Anxiety,” Psychology Today, retrieved 1 April 2016

[6] Beard, C Ed. (2011), “TV and Kids: How to cut screen time,” Web MD retrieved 1 April 201

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