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Screen time limits for children

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Are we losing our children to their screens? Babies know how to swipe a screen before they can walk and most teenagers are clocking up 6 hours screen time a day.

We are surrounded by screens, be they TVs, computers, tablets, games consoles or smart phones. There's no doubting the phenomenal benefits of technology.

We have instant access to the world's knowledge and the way we communicate has been transformed, but is it at a cost?

Too much time

The big issue isn't the screens themselves, it's the time kids spend on them. They can be addictive. There's a growing body of research that suggests too much screen time can effect academic attainment, physical health, sleep and emotional development.

Dr Aric Sigman is a leading expert on screen time and its effects. He says: "Spending too long on discretionary screen time which isn't related to homework or education is the real issue."

He adds: "It's now the main waking activity of children: a lifestyle factor as relevant to health as nutrition and physical activity."

He wants politicians and the medical profession to set clear guidelines for how much screen time children are exposed to.

"There is a formal recognition that screen time has health effects," says Dr Sigman. "In this country there isn't a consensus on limits. Australia has the best formal advice that most children should have only 2 hours of recreational screen time daily."

Impact of too much screen time

The chief medical officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, in her 2012 'Annual Report: Our Children Deserve Better: Prevention Pays' includes a section about the potential dangers of too much screen time.

The points made were:

  • Evidence suggests that extended screen time per day has an effect on health which is independent of the sedentary aspect.
  • There is a link between screen time and type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Adolescent boys who have more than 2 hours a day of screen time have two times higher levels of insulin, suggesting relative resistance.

Not only does too much screen time have an effect on physical health, it may also influence academic attainment.

In 2015 research at Cambridge University, researchers looked at the effect of screen time on exam performance. It looked at more than 800 children whose activities were recorded at age 14 and their GCSE results analysed at 16. It found those spending an extra hour a day on screens - be that TV, computer, console, tablet or phone - saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall.

There are also less tangible effects on emotional intelligence and family relationships.

"Screens can be addictive. They give quick fire hits of dopamine over and over again especially through game play and on social networks," says Gill Hines, education and parenting consultant, and author of 'Whatever! - A down to earth guide to parenting teenagers'.

She says: "More time on screens means less time relating to people face to face. It's no coincidence that young people are finding it increasingly difficult to relate in a real situation."

Most children don't even like using their smart phones as phones. They much prefer to text than speak to a friend.

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