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It is health that is the real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.

Mahatma Gandhi.

THE IMPACT OF SCREEN TIME ON CHILDREN

smart-phones-and-tablets

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.  

Today’s child still has all of these idyllic play options at their fingertips, but there is one competing factor that’s raising concern across the developed world: screen time. From television, to computers and hand-held devices, the temptation is everywhere. It’s an easy babysitter, but its effects can be quite far reaching. 

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 preschoolers 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]. In one UK study, it was found that:

  • 37 percent of parents surveyed said that their child spent between one and two hours a day playing with tech gadgets
  • 28 percent said between two to three hours were spent on tech gadgets
  • 38 percent of 2 – 5 year olds owned an android tablet
  • 32 percent owned an iPad
  • Almost one third of those kids also had a mobile phone
  • More than 35% of parents interviewed said they use tech gadgets to entertain their children because they are convenient
  • 23 percent said they use tech gadgets to entertain their children because they want their children to be tech-savvy.

Additionally, “A 2015 survey of 1,000 British mothers of children aged 2 to 12 found that 85 percent of mums admit to using technology to keep the kids occupied while they get on with other activities. The AO.com survey pointed to children spending on average around 17 hours a week in front of a screen – almost double the 8.8 weekly hours spent playing outside[3].”

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman remarks that, “whether it’s Facebook, the internet or computer games, screen time is no longer merely a cultural issue about how children spend their leisure time, nor is it confined to concern over the educational value or inappropriate content – it’s a medical issue [3].”

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 organise 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 smart phone or electronic devices [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.

It’s a problem we’d never have to tackle a generation ago, but technology is here and its here to stay. Avoiding screen time altogether might be a difficult or even impossible task given the myriad of tech-gadgets that intersect with us through-out the day, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make some positive steps to protect the young brains in our care. It all starts with information.

Good luck!

 

References

[1] Staff Writer, (2015), “Give the Screen a Rest. Active Play is BestSouth 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 2016