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Kids 'need curbs on screen time'

Children have access to too many screens and for too long, a psychologist argues
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Keith David Barnard

9th October 2012 - Politicians and the medical profession need to set clear guidelines for how much TV, video games and other sources of screen time young children are exposed to, according to a psychologist and child health expert.

In a leading article in Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr Aric Sigman argues that parents should also delay the age at which young children are introduced to television and other forms of screen entertainment or risk serious health and developmental problems in their kids.

"Attention damage, if you want to look at cognitive processes is one," Dr Sigman tells BootsWebMD, "where the amount of exposure at a very young age is increasingly linked with attention damage at a variety of different ages when they're older."

TVs, smartphones, tablets

He says Britain’s children have regular access to an average of five different screens at home by the time they are 10 years old, in the form of TVs, games consoles, smart phones, laptops and tablets. He adds that by the age of seven, a child born today will have spent one full year of 24 hour days watching screens, rising to three full days by the time he or she is 18.

Dr Sigman quotes a number of studies in this area which link prolonged screen time and ill health, including increased risks of markers for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as other biological effects associated with being sedentary that exercise does not seem to reverse.

He believes that viewing screen media is physiologically distinct from other forms of sedentary behaviour and that more attention must be paid to the amount of time children spend looking at screens. "Just the screen time itself is an independent risk factor for disease," he says.

Children's TV

Dr Sigman warns that parents are deluding themselves if they believe that children will come to no harm as long as they are restricted to educational children's programmes on TV. "There is a misunderstanding that the content and the medium are the same thing," he says. "In other words if the things on the screen provide information which may be educational, that in some way that prevents any kind of physical or medical effects - and that's not true.

"Children may learn some information from what they see on the screen, but the screen time itself can cause the physiological changes and the health outcomes that my paper has outlined."

He writes that the UK needs a "robust initiative" to reduce screen time, with the average British teenager clocking up six hours of screen time a day - three times the amount that research suggests is the maximum to protect good health and wellbeing.

Reducing screen time

Dr Sigman lists a series of measures that he believes can help. These include preventing or restricting screen exposure in children under three, banning TVs and consoles from bedrooms and ensuring that parents monitor the amount of time their kids spend playing hand-held computer games.

He is also calling for health visitors to advise new parents about the medical evidence relating to infants and toddlers watching screens. Schools should also draw up policies about how much screen time is appropriate for pupils, he says.

Reviewed on October 08, 2012

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