Children’s health threatened by increasing screen time, says journal

Author: Sarah Boseley, health editor

Date published: Tuesday 9 October 2012


Review of studies raises concerns over screen time, while the department of health highlights instead the dangers of inactivity


By the age of seven, a child born today in the UK will have spent an entire year of 24 hours a day looking at TV, computer and video game screens. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

By the age of seven, a child born today in the UK will have spent an entire year of 24 hours a day looking at TV, computer and video game screens. By the age of 18, that will be three whole years. According to a review of studies carried out around the world on the effect of screen time on children, they could be seriously damaging their health.

The paper in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, written by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman following a speech he gave to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which co-owns the journal, says that although US, Canadian and Australian doctors have expressed concern, “to date, views of the British and European medical establishments on increasing high levels of child screen time remain conspicuous by their absence”.

However, there is plenty of concern about rising obesity and inactivity, in which TV and computer games are implicated. The Department of Health frames it as an inactivity issue, rather than a screen problem. “The chief medical officer published guidance last year on children’s activity levels,” it said in a statement reacting to Sigman’s call for more guidance from the government and doctors. “All under-fives should spend as little time as possible sitting still except when they’re sleeping. Once a child can walk, they should be physically active and mobile for at least three hours a day.”

There is plenty of evidence that sitting for hours at a time stores up health problems for the future. Sedentary behaviour is linked to rising risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke. But Sigman’s review also cites studies that show increases in blood pressure in children playing computer games and says that screen time is associated with unhealthy eating behaviour. Children respond to junk food adverts and eat in front of screens, which is such a distraction that it disturbs their memory of what they have consumed and they want to eat again.

More concerning to the parent who thought children’s TV was educational and harmless are the studies that suggest screen time has an effect on a baby’s developing brain. A US study cited by the review published in the journal Pediatrics of 2,623 children found that those who watched TV at the ages of one and three years “had a significantly increased risk of developing attentional problems by the time they were seven years old”. Then there is “Facebook depression”, reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics: an increased risk of disengagement and vulnerability to victimisation after high levels of screen time in early childhood, poor social skills and an impaired ability to express empathy. Sigman notes changes in familial interactions, with children too absorbed in their screen world to greet a parent arriving home.

But blaming computers and TV may look like too simplistic an answer to many parents, who will have alternative interpretations of what is happening in an era of social as well as technological change, and Sigman acknowledges that none of the studies prove that screens cause children harm. “The associations between screen time and health risk cited … do not prove direct causation,” he writes.