Kids HealthWellbeing in Children

Should You Cut the Amount of Screen Time for Kids?

Using a digital babysitter to entertain, educate and distract children has helped save the sanity of parents for years but at what cost to children?

Parents, health professionals, scientists and government organisations around the world are now questioning the impact of screen time exposure on the physical, mental, and emotional health and wellbeing of young children and teenagers.

Boy on laptop
“Is your child getting unlimited screen time – what are the consequences?”

Many young children now use and watch content on a variety of digital screens, including family TVs and their own bedroom TVs, family computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and computer game consoles (Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo).

It’s said that over the course of their childhood, children will spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.

Despite the many studies over the past few years, however, no one seems to agree on the amount of time children should be given access to screens.

How much screen time

Children under the age of three should not be exposed to any screen time while those aged between three and four should only be allowed to view digital devices for an hour, according to guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019. Less screen time exposure for children is better, it says.

The UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), however, is less prescriptive. It says decisions on how much time children spend on digital devices should be made on a case-by-case basis within families. Some screen time can help children learn, it says.

“Our primary recommendation is that families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs of an individual child, the ways in which screens are used, and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep,” it said in a 2019 report.

The RCPCH suggested you consider the following four questions:

  1. Is screen time in your household controlled?
  2. Does screen use interfere with what your family want to do?
  3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?
  4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

While researchers and health organisations might not agree on screen times, they do say too much exposure can be harmful in a variety of ways to kids and young people.

Does your child have too much screen time?
“Is your child balancing screen time with activities and exercise?”

Obesity risk

Children who regularly play video games as youngsters are likely to have a higher body mass index(BMI) as teenagers, according to a study published in 2020 by scientists from the University of Leeds.

They conducted a study of 16,000 children in the UK at multiple points during their childhood and early adolescence (at age five, seven and then 14) and found those who regularly played video games as young children had a higher BMI than those who did not play video games.

Consuming sugar-sweetened drinks and irregular bedtimes were thought to be partly responsible for causing the weight change, they found.

The report’s lead author, Dr. Rebecca Beeken, from the Leeds’ School of Medicine, said, “This research shows a potential connection between gaming in young children and an increased chance of higher weight in later years.”

It makes sense since the longer children spend sitting and watching something on screen, the less active they are.

A study by RCPCH said children with higher screen time tend to have a less healthy diet, a higher energy intake, and more pronounced indicators of obesity.

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Poorer educational outcomes

Extra time spent on screens can have a detrimental impact on educational results, a 2015 Cambridge University study found. Researchers recorded the activities of over 800 14-year-olds then analysed their GCSE results two years later. On average, the 14-year-olds said they spent four hours of their leisure time watching TV or on a computer.

Those who spent an extra hour a day on TV, computer, games consoles or mobile phones saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

Those spending an extra hour a day on screens (TV, computer, games console, phone) saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall. An additional hour of screen time a day was associated with 9.3 less GCSE points at 16, which is the equivalent of dropping a grade in two subjects.

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Mental health impact

Children who use more than two hours screen time daily tend to have more depressive symptoms, the RCPCH said. It did add that some studies have found a little screen time is better for mental health than none at all.

“There also seems to be a trend towards poorer educational outcomes, sleep and fitness in children using screens for long periods, although the evidence is weaker for these associations.”

Eye Damage and Sleep Disruptions

Exposure to the LED screens of computers and digital devices may also be harmful to eyesight and sleep patterns.

Computers and digital device LED screens give off a spectrum of visible light. While most of the light rays are harmless, some are not. They are high energy rays known as blue light. Research has shown that specific bands of blue light may be harmful to the light-sensitive retina of the eyes.

blue light from late night screen time
“Is over-exposure to blue light from screens damaging?”

Over-exposure to blue light can also disrupt the body’s normal circadian rhythm (also known as the ‘sleep/wake cycle’). In other words, it can lead to problems with sleep and alertness during waking hours.

That’s why the RCPCH recommends children be kept away from digital screens for an hour before their scheduled bedtime.

You could also set a time limit on your child’s use of mobile phones or other digital devices. Companies such as Apple, Samsung and Google offer features and apps designed to allow you to monitor your children’s daily screen time.

Screen time needs thinking about

As well as minimising the amount of time your child spends in front of a digital screen, you could also consider buying spectacles with lenses that reduce or filter the amount of blue light that enters the eyes. It’s best to consult an optician about the options for blue light protection for children.

Although there is no one agreed upon amount of daily screen time, it is obvious that excessive exposure can lead to problems now and in the future for young children and teenagers.  

Izzy Kids Brilliant Brainz Magazine
Happy reader with Brilliant Brainz children’s magazine
Tags: Kids Health, Wellbeing in Children

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