Too much screen time is bad for kids, we know that already. But how much is too much?
With children increasingly having access to on-screen media, from the digital television with its plethora of channels to the portable iPad and other tablet devices that can serve to keep the kids quiet in a pinch, health researchers in the UK are now calling for firmer guidance limits on how much is too much — and, for some, that includes a blanket ban on kids under three watching television.
A review of evidence in the Archives of Disease in Childhood by psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, also author of a book on the subject, seems to suggest that increasing exposure to screen-based media, including television, games and tablet devices, may be leading to developmental problems in our children. Chiefly, it’s the duration of exposure that seems to be the main concern.
Dr Sigman says a child born today will have spent a full year glued to screens by the time they reach the age of seven.
He adds: “In addition to the main family television, for example, many very young children have their own bedroom TV along with portable hand-held computer game consoles (eg, Nintendo, Playstation, Xbox), smartphone with games, internet and video, a family computer and a laptop and/or a tablet computer (eg iPad).
“Children routinely engage in two or more forms of screen viewing at the same time, such as TV and laptop.”
Dr Sigman goes on to say that he believes the evidence shows British teenagers may spend as much as six hours a day looking at screens in their own homes, and that doesn’t count time spent at school staring at computers.
Sigman points to the wealth of evidence that suggests that sitting for extended periods of time (two hours without a break or more) has been shown to correlate with increased chances of heart problems and overall health decline in later life.
Dr Sigman has also become particularly concerned, it would seem, with digital media being used to nanny children during critical times in their development, such as the first three years of life in which rapid brain growth occurs.
These are actually not new concerns.
Guidelines in the U.S., Canada and other territories have already urged limits on the amount of time young people spend in front of the television and on the computer. No such official guidance has been issued in the UK to-date, but doctors at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have also noted their concern, as have other research groups.
However, Dr Sigman has gone further than his counterparts to suggest that under-threes should get no screen time at all. He then suggests a gradual increase to a maximum of just two hours for over-16s.
Dr Sigman also cites controversial studies that suggest a phenomenon dubbed “Facebook Depression” may be affecting our children. Those studies remain contested, however.
And this is where things get controversial. Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, has said that though she agrees this is an important topic, she doubts that Sigman’s paper is entirely impartial.
Bishop told the Guardian: ”Aric Sigman does not appear to have any academic or clinical position, or to have done any original research on this topic. His comments about impact of screen time on brain development and empathy seem speculative in my opinion, and the arguments that he makes could equally well be used to conclude that children should not read books.”
Sigman has defended his approach, saying that rather than being tied to a university, he has instead chosen to work in health education. His recommendation for a ban for under-threes isn’t that far removed from guidance issued by the American Academy of Pediatricians last year when it suggested a ban on television for children under two, but some of Sigman’s other conclusions are less well supported.
The upshot seems to be that, until we are told otherwise, screen time for children will not harm them and can be beneficial in fact, given that certain forms of media can help their learning through play, so long as it is in moderation and balanced against a diverse list of other activities.
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