Image courtesy OJO Images/Rex Features
Image courtesy OJO Images/Rex Features
A child’s natural habitat, it appears, is in front of a computer screen. But the effects could be lethal. Samantha Laurie logs on to a growing problem
When a dapper American research pyschologist breezed into my son’s school recently to talk about the deleterious effects of excessive screen time on teens, few were prepared for the deeply discomforting hour that followed.
Not only were the bare facts jaw-dropping – the average British child spends 6.1 hours a day on recreational screens (TVs and computer gaming, not including homework) – but Dr Aric Sigman drilled through layer after layer of medical evidence pointing to the cognitive, psychological and, most chillingly, chemical and biological changes that take place in teenagers who get through more than two screen hours a day.
Of particular resonance was Sigman’s claim that, for young screen users, those chemical changes in the blood that increase the risk of diabetes, cardio-vascular disease and obesity are not attenuated by exercise. For reasons that are still unclear, children who spend a lot of time in front of a screen put on weight regardless of how active they are at other times. Adolescents who play screen games for more than two hours a day are twice as likely to have abnormal levels of insulin in their blood and display a substantially raised risk of heart attacks and strokes – risks that go further than those simply associated with being sedentary for long periods.
“Perhaps because screen time is not a dangerous substance, or a visibly risky activity, it has eluded the scrutiny that other health issues attract,” believes Sigman, who wants to see official guidelines akin to those introduced in the US and Australia. These recommend no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day for teenagers and none at all for under 2s (under 3s in Australia).
Sigman argues that, in terms of screen time, we are at the bottom of the rabbit hole. Overnight, the main waking activity of the developing brain has become recreational gaming. As he spooled through evidence of reduced attention span, sleep problems, poorer academic performance, dependency and depression, two questions arose. Firstly, was this cause for real concern or mere speculation? And secondly, if the former, what could parents of a screen-obsessed teenager do about it?
Accused in the past of cherrypicking, Sigman has now had his work published in a British Medical Association journal – an indication of the gradually increasing awareness of this problem within the mainstream medical community.
“These are not just my opinions,” he asserts. “They are the basis on which other countries are forming health policy.”
In France, all TV broadcasts aimed at under threes are now banned, as a result of evidence that a toddler who watches three hours of TV a day is 30% more likely to have attention problems in school by the age of seven. The research found that kids whose attention system had been ‘flavour enhanced’ by the overstimulation of dopamine, the brain chemical, were subsequently ill-prepared for less exciting activities, such as listening to a teacher.
But surely, argues my own teenage son, this is the world into which we’re moving. Is it not futile to attempt to control the electronic flood?
“The real concern is the developing brain,” responds Sigman. “Eighty per cent of development occurs in the first three years, but a teenage boy’s brain is still developing until he has turned 24. You don’t have to say ‘no screens’ – just use them in moderation. It’s the amount of consumption that is alarming.”
Nor is it true that using many different screens helps to hone multitasking skills.
“A top tip for parents is to insist that your child turn off social networking sites during homework, as these will interrupt interpretative thinking and sustained attention, making for poorer grades.”
Parents can also set better examples by limiting their own screen behaviour (and not constantly checking their phone), but the key point is that a teenager’s brain is still developing – an adult’s isn’t. This is not frivolous disapproval of youth culture, insists Sigman, but a real issue of health.
The younger the child, the greater the concern. But as 50% of newborns now have a TV in the bedroom, Sigman’s advice to avoid all screens before the age of three seems almost quaint. If possible, he says, choose slower paced material for toddlers. For older children, reduce the frequency of exposure and the availability of screens and insist on a buffer zone between screen time and sleep. Keeping TVs and computers out of bedrooms is still the single best way of avoiding excess.
The issue, he imagines, will parallel that of obesity: a growing band of parents alert to the dangers and keen to exert control, set against such wild levels of screen use that even six hours a day will seem modest. The bottom of the rabbit hole indeed.