Are screens affecting your child’s wellbeing? The Covid-19 pandemic with the rise in online learning has significantly increased the amount of time children spend in front of screens. While some of this shift has been positive, screen time is associated with several health issues.
Research from seven years ago estimated children spend on average over six hours per day looking at screens, with some adolescents interviewed spending as many as 16 hours on their devices on a weekday. These figures are likely to have increased dramatically.
Read on to discover if screen time may be behind some of your child’s health concerns.
When staring at a screen, your child is not moving. Children who spend a lot of time in front of screens will be more sedentary. Children are designed to be active, and sitting for long periods not only encourages childhood obesity but also health conditions. These health conditions are more usually associated with older adults, like high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. Excessive screen time contributes to poor bone health and immune issues too.
The latest available data shows over one in five children aged 10-11 in the UK are obese, with one in three children at primary school leaving age being overweight. In the USA, professionals have noticed children tend to gain weight over the summer break. During school holidays children typically spend less time exercising and more time in front of screens. One expert has warned the time out of school during lockdown could have increased childhood obesity rates by as much as 4%.
And as well as increased susceptibility to metabolic diseases, childhood obesity is strongly associated with obesity in adulthood. According to one study, nearly 70% of children who were obese at age five were still obese when they reached 50, while almost 90% of obese teenagers remain so throughout their lives.
Screens emit light at the blue end of the spectrum, similar to that contained in sunlight. This kind of light boosts alertness during the daytime and encourages quality sleep.
However, exposure to blue light during the evening can play havoc with your child’s sleep/wake cycle, because it reduces the release of melatonin. This brain chemical makes it possible to fall asleep and dictates the quality of sleep. Spending a lot of time on electronic devices will also inevitably cut into children’s sleep time.
Social media is designed to be addictive, with studies showing scrolling through social media posts encourages the release of dopamine. This is the brain chemical associated with reward – the same substance your brain releases when you experience pleasure. Restricting social media use and screen time in general has been found to reduce feelings of depression and loneliness, while large amounts of screen time are associated with lower self-esteem and increased anxiety.
Concerns were raised from a Chinese study showing increased screen time was correlated with children becoming progressively more short-sighted. A three-fold increase in short sight was reported compared to the previous five years after children were confined indoors for six months in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether this change was due to the screen time or less time spent outdoors is unclear, because previous studies have shown spending time outdoors reduces the risk of short-sightedness.
The UK has no official guidelines for screen usage, although the WHO recommends avoidance of screen media apart from video-chatting for all children under 18 months old, with screen use limited in the 2-5 year age group to one hour per day. For children aged 6 years and over, no time limit is stipulated, but parents are urged not to let screen use take the place of physical exercise, time outside and enough sleep. The American Society of Paediatrics advises no screens at all during meals and one hour before bedtime.
Of course, not all screen time is created equal, with stimulating, engaging activities far more beneficial than passively watching videos or scrolling through social media. Studies have found interacting with passive media is connected with lower grades in exams. This is one reason why online learning should be as interactive as possible.
Encouraging your children to track their screen time on a chart can help both you and them appreciate how much time is being spent on screens. Schedule set ‘screen-free’ times each day and areas of the house, such as the table, where screens are banned. Take regular breaks with your child to break up screen time – five minutes of play or interaction, preferably outside, after every hour of screen use for example. It’s wise to limit or avoid screen time completely in the under two’s whose brains are fast developing.
Lifestyle has a huge influence on children’s wellbeing. If you’d like to work with me to explore how simple lifestyle strategies can create a healthier future for your child, contact me today.
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