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Abstract

In Britain today, children by the age of 10 years have regular access to an average of five different screens at home. In addition to the main family television, for example, many very young children have their own bedroom TV along with portable handheld 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.1 Viewing is starting earlier in life. Nearly one in three American infants has a TV in their bedroom, and almost half of all infants watch TV or DVDs for nearly 2 h/day.2 Across the industrialised world, watching screen media is the main pastime of children. Over the course of childhood, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.3 When including computer games, internet and DVDs, by the age of seven years, a child born today will have spent one full year of 24 h days watching screen media. By the age of 18 years, the average European child will have spent 3 years of 24 h days watching screen media; at this rate, by the age of 80 years, they will have spent 17.6 years4 glued to media screens. Yet, irrespective of the content or educational value of what is being viewed, the sheer amount of average daily screen time (ST) during discretionary hours after school is increasingly being considered an independent risk factor for disease, and is recognised as such by other governments and medical bodies but not, however, in Britain or in most of the EU. To date, views of the British and European medical establishments on increasingly high levels of child ST remain conspicuous …
Time for a view on screen time
Aric Sigman
INTRODUCTION
In Britain today, children by
the age of 10 years have
regular access to an average of
ve different screens at home.
In addition to the main family
television, for example, many very young
children have their own bedroom TV
along with portable handheld 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.
1
Viewing is starting earlier in life. Nearly
one in three American infants has a TV
in their bedroom, and almost half of all
infants watch TV or DVDs for nearly
2 h/day.
2
Across the industrialised world, watch-
ing screen media is the main pastime of
children. Over the course of childhood,
children spend more time watching TV
than they spend in school.
3
When includ-
ing computer games, internet and DVDs,
by the age of seven years, a child born
today will have spent one full year of
24 h days watching screen media. By the
age of 18 years, the average European
child will have spent 3 years of 24 h days
watching screen media; at this rate, by
the age of 80 years, they will have spent
17.6 years
4
glued to media screens.
Yet, irrespective of the content or edu-
cational value of what is being viewed,
the sheer amount of average daily screen
time (ST) during discretionary hours
after school is increasingly being consid-
ered an independent risk factor for
disease, and is recognised as such by
other governments and medical bodies
but not, however, in Britain or in most of
the EU. To date, views of the British and
European medical establishments on
increasingly high levels of child ST
remain conspicuous by their absence.
This paper will highlight the dramatic
increase in the time children today spend
watching screen media. It will provide a
brief overview of some specic health
and well-being concerns of current
viewing levels, explain why screen
viewing is distinct from other forms of
sedentary behaviour, and point to the
potential public health benets of a
reduction in ST. It is proposed that
Britain and Europes medical establish-
ments now offer guidance on the average
number of hours per day children spend
viewing screen media, and the age at
which they start.
LEVEL OF CONSUMPTION: DOSE
Children of all ages today, are watching
more screen media than ever before.
5
Excluding any viewing time outside the
home, such as hand-held screen activities,
the average ST in the home for young
British adolescents is 6.1 h/day, and this
is rising signicantly.
6
Canadian children
spend 7.8 h/day, and American children
7.5 h: 55% of their waking lives.
78
The
ongoing EU ToyBox study group has just
reported, In general, parents had no
formal rules about TV viewing
Remarkably, in most countries, parents of
a low SES had almost no rules regarding
watching TV. Children can watch TV all
day long or whenever they want.
9
However, ST is no longer merely a cul-
tural issue about how children spend
their leisure time, nor is it conned to
concern over the appropriate/inappropri-
ate content of what is on the screen. It
has become a medical issue, often exhi-
biting a dose-response relationship with
disease risk.
SCREEN TIME GUIDELINES
The US Department of Health and
Human Services now cites reducing STas
one of its key health improvement prior-
itiesin achieving its national 10-year
health promotion and disease prevention
objective:to increase the proportion of chil-
dren aged 0 to 2 years who view no television
or videos on an average weekday, and increase
the proportion of children and adolescents
aged 2 years through 12th grade [18 years]
who view television, videos, or play video
games for no more than 2 hours a day.
10
The
Australian Department of Health and
Ageing has issued similar guidelines, as
has the American Academy of Pediatrics
(AAP), adding: mediaboth foreground
and backgroundhave potentially nega-
tive effects and no known positive effects
for children younger than 2 years.
11 12
The Canadian Paediatric Society has gone
further, No child should be allowed to
have a television, computer or video game
equipment in his or her bedroom.
13
The
French Government prohibits French
channels from airing all TV programmes
educational and otherwiseaimed at
children under 3 years of age.
14
What is the basis for this concern?
MORTALITY AND MORBIDITY
Numerous well designed prospective
cohort studies continue to nd a highly
signicant dose-response association
between ST and risk of type 2 diabetes,
cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all-
cause mortality among adults, with ST
identied as an independent risk factor
with biological plausibility.
1517
Wijndaele et al
16
recently reported
that every 1 h/day increase in television
viewing was associated with a 6%
increased hazard for total fatal or non-
fatal CVD, and an 8% increased hazard
for coronary heart disease, independent
of gender, age, education, smoking,
alcohol, medication, diabetes status, CVD
family history, sleep duration and phys-
ical activity energy expenditure.
At the same time, others report that
for participants engaging in 4 h/day of
recreational ST (eg, TV, computers) rela-
tive to <2 h/day, there was a 48%
increased hazard for all-cause mortality,
and a 125% increased hazard for CVD
events of which 25% was explained by
cardiometabolic biomarkers.
18
In children and adults, ST has also
been found to have an unfavourable
dose-response association with a range of
biomarkers for CVD, type 2 diabetes and
metabolic syndrome (MetS) including
LDL/HDL/total cholesterol, triglyceride,
brinogen, systolic/diastolic blood pres-
sure (BP) and C-reactive protein.
16 19
Examining television/DVD/video and
computer use and metabolic risk, Hardy
et al
20
found that adolescent boys who
exceed 2 h/day of STwere more than twice
as likely to have abnormal levels of insulin
and homeostatic model assessment of
insulin resistance (HOMA-IR), suggesting
an increased risk of insulin resistance.
Another study involving 1318.5-year-olds
in ve Spanish cities found those watching
more than 3 h of TV per day had signi-
cantly less favourable levelsof HDL-
cholesterol, glucose, apolipoprotein A1 and
overall CVD risk scores.
21
VIEWING IS NOT MERELY
SEDENTARY BEHAVIOUR
Nevertheless, the association between ST
and health risk appears not as simple as
ST merely being a sedentary behaviour.
First, sedentary behaviour as a risk factor
Correspondence to Dr A Sigman, Ofce 444, 91
Western Road, Brighton BN1 2NW, UK; aric@
aricsigman.com
Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0 1
Leading article
is distinct from too little moderate-to-
vigorous physical activity (MVPA) in all
age groups, with the two possibly being
separate constructs involving different
metabolic pathways contributing to
disease.
19 20 22 23
Prolonged ST elevates
health risk independent of the level of
MVPA people routinely engage in.
22
A
recent analysis of the ongoing US
National Institutes of Health Diet and
Health Study observed that even among
people with high levels of MVPA, high
amounts of television viewing remain
associated with a 47% increased risk for
all-cause, and a 100% increased risk for
cardiovascular mortality.
17
Another study
of body composition and abdominal
obesity in children across 10 European
cities has recently concluded that phys-
ical activity does not attenuate the
obesity risk associated with ST.
24
Moreover, childrens ST may be some-
what distinct from other forms of seden-
tary behaviour in its inuence on
biological risk factors for disease.
23 25 26
For example, examining a range of seden-
tary behaviours, screen activities and BP
in young adolescents, Gopinath et al
25
reported a dose-response relationship,
each hour per day spent in screen time,
watching TV and playing video games
was associated with a signicant increase
in diastolic BP of 0.44 ( p=0.0001), 0.99
(p<0.0001) and 0.64 mm Hg ( p=0.04),
respectively. By contrast, each hour per
day spent reading was associated with a
decrease…’ In prepubertal children, TV
viewing and total ST, but not computer
use, have been found to be positively
associated with both systolic and dia-
stolic BP, while painting or sitting were
not.
26
Additionally, different screen activ-
ities may have differing independent
associations with biomarkers and chronic
disease risk in youth.
23 26 27
A cross-sectional study of a large
sample of overweight and obese adoles-
cents concluded that time spent playing
seated video games was the only type of
ST associated with increased BP and total
cholesterol/HDL ratio.
27
Carson and
Janssen found in a representative popula-
tion of 619-year-olds that time spent
watching TV was predictive of a higher
score of an aggregated or clustered
measure of cardio-metabolic risk, but rec-
reational computer time was not.
23
While
in prepubertal children, Martinez-Gomez
et al
26
found that TV viewing but not
computer time was associated with
increased BP.
Studies of HPA stress-regulation and ST
shed further light on underlying mechan-
isms. Wallenius et al
28
found school-aged
children who had used Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) equip-
ment for an average of 3 h the preceding
day (only half the UK child norm)
showed a signicantly reduced cortisol
increase 1 h after waking compared with
children who had not used ICT at all, or
for less than 1 h. The results suggest a stress
response as a consequence of a long period of
ICTuse[which] can persist over night and
have an impact on the regulation of
HPA-activity even the next morning.They
suggest that child ST day after day may
predispose some adolescents to the devel-
opment of allostatic load.There is
already concern that even HPA changes
within the normal range may be subtle
early indicators of, and contributors to,
unfavourable physical health outcomes in
adolescence and adulthood.
The educational value of screen mater-
ial being viewed does not preclude the
signicant associations reported above
between ST and morbidity, mortality and
associated biomarkers.
OBESOGENIC MECHANISMS
Increased TV viewing has been consist-
ently shown to be linked to increased
body mass index (BMI) in both children
and adults independent of physical activ-
ity.
22 29
The association appears stronger
in young children. A cross-sectional study
assessing fat mass by Jackson et al
30
found a dose-response relationship: Each
extra hour of watching TV was asso-
ciated with an extra 1 kg of body fat
Preschool children who watch more TV
are fatter and are less active the rela-
tion between TV viewing and fatness is
not mediated by physical activity…’.
ST is clearly associated with unhealthy
dietary behaviours in children, adoles-
cents and adults.
31
However, in addition
to the inuence of food advertising,
studies of childrens ingestive behaviour
in direct response to screen viewing
suggest it can act as a distraction away
from vital satiation food cues toward
non-food cues (screen), thereby disrupt-
ing the development of habituation to
food and, therefore, increasing energy
intake while children are viewing.
32
Eating a meal while viewing screens is
also thought to disrupt the encoding and
memory formation of the meal. Impaired
memory for recent eating may increase
food intake hours after viewing stops. A
study in the journal Appetite found that
the effects of television watching on
food intake extend beyond the time of
television watching to affect subsequent
consumption.
33
In a randomised crossover study, video
game playing was found to signicantly
increase food intake in adolescents imme-
diately after playing and was not com-
pensated for during the rest of the day.
34
One hour of playing a video game
resulted in a daily energy surplus of
163 kcal, a rate of 60 000 kcal/year, which
could help manufacture almost 8 kg of
body fat per year.
All these effects are taking place at a
time in our history when 68% of dinners
in the UK are eaten while watching
television.
5
Interestingly, a randomised controlled
clinical intervention trial divided 4
7-year-olds into two groups: one had its
TV and computer viewing reduced by
half; the other did not. After 3 years,
there had been a signicant reduction in
the BMI of those who had halved their
screen viewing, and relatively little in
those who had not.
35
The above ndings may have signi-
cant public health implications. Children
912 years with a high BMI are more
likely to have high BP, cholesterol and
blood insulin levels by adolescence.
36
Even marginally elevated BMI in adoles-
cence constitutes a substantial risk factor
for early occurrence of angiography-
proven coronary heart disease.
37
The EU
ToyBox study has in its Evidence-based
recommendations for the development of
obesity prevention programs targeted
at preschool childrenjust called for
Limitation of leisure screen time to
<1 h/d (or the amount of time recom-
mended by appropriate national guide-
lines, if less than 1 h/d).
29
BRAIN AND COGNITION
ST is associated in a dose-response
manner with subsequent attention pro-
blems in a variety of age groups. A longi-
tudinal study of 2623 children reported
that children who watched television at
ages 1 and 3 years had a signicantly
increased risk of developing attentional
problems by the time they were 7 years
old. For every hour of television a child
watched per day, there was a 9% increase
in subsequent attentional problems con-
sistent with a diagnosis of ADHD.
38
A longer-term dose-response association
has been found between television
viewing at the ages of 5 and 11 years,
and subsequent attention problems in
adolescence independent of early atten-
tion problems and other confounders.
39
Similar associations have been reported
in 1422-year-olds, and in a study of
824-year-olds, Swing et al concluded,
Viewing television and playing video
2Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0
Leading article
games each are associated with increased
subsequent attention problems in child-
hoodlate adolescence and early
adulthood…’.
40 41
In addition to ST, screen speed’—the
pace of editing and degree of novelty
within screen materialis increasingly
thought to be an important factor in the
above ndings. Lillard and Peterson
found that 9 minutes of viewing a
popular fast-paced fantastical television
show immediately impaired 4-year-olds
EF [executive function], a result about
which parents of young children should
be aware.
42
Dopamine is central to the ability to
pay attention and implicated in attention
problems. It is produced in response to
screen novelty. Signicant dopamine
release within the striatum is found to
occur quickly in young adult brains while
playing computer games.
43 44
Dopamine
is also a key component of the brains
reward system, and is heavily implicated
in the formation and maintenance of
addictions. There are growing concerns
that extensive computer game playing
may lead to long-term changes in the
reward circuitry that resemble the effects
of substance dependence.
44
In addition to
computer games, screen viewing by
youngsters begets more viewing and,
unlike other sedentary behaviours, most
of the criteria of substance dependence
apply to people with higher levels of
ST.
45
Screen addiction, once a populist
catch phrase, is increasingly being used
by physicians to describe the growing
number of children engaging in screen
activities in a dependent manner.
46
PSYCHOSOCIAL HEALTH
ST is strongly associated with measures
of child mental well-being.
4750
The AAP
has recently published a report on The
Impact of Social Media on Children,
Adolescents and Families, which contains
a section entitled Facebook Depression,
which is dened as depression that devel-
ops when preteens and teens spend a
great deal of time on social media sites,
such as Facebook, and then begin to
exhibit classic symptoms of depression.
51
A British study found that children who
spent more than 2 h/day watching televi-
sion or using a computer were at [60%]
increased risk of high levels of psycho-
logical difculties and this risk increased
if the children also failed to meet physical
activity guidelines. Both television
viewing and computer use are important
independent targets for intervention for
optimal well-being for children, irrespect-
ive of levels of moderate/vigorous
physical activity (MVPA) or overall sed-
entary time.
50
A cross-sectional analysis
of 910-year-old girls found ST to be
negatively associated with self-esteem.
49
A survey of 3461 North American girls
aged 812 years found a signicant asso-
ciation between STas well as measures of
media multitasking, and negative psycho-
social well-being.
Conversely, face-to-face communica-
tion was strongly associated with posi-
tive psychosocial well-being.
48
A study of
Japanese children aged 514 years reports
ST had a strong association with negative
feeling upon awakening and recommends
guidelines for child ST as a preventive
measure.
47
Adjusting for pre-existing individual
and family factors, a prospective longitu-
dinal study of 1314 Canadian children
found signicant negative associations
between ST at 29 and 53 months of age,
and psychosocial well-being at age
10 years. Each 1 h increase in early child-
hood exposure corresponded to a 7% unit
decrease in classroom engagement and
10% unit increase in victimisation in
middle childhood. Researchers reported
Higher levels of early childhood televi-
sion exposure predicted greater chances of
peer rejection experiences such as being
teased, assaulted, or insulted by other
students our results suggest that
reduced time for critical social interac-
tions in early childhood owing to dis-
placed time spent watching television
may present later specic risks of devel-
oping inadequate social skills.
52
In understanding the above associa-
tions, several mechanisms have been pro-
posed. Humans require a certain amount
of co-presence’—regular eye-to-eye
contact for optimal physical and mental
health.
53
Moreover, the fundamental
ability to relate to others is dependent on
social and emotional skills that are learnt
through regular social interaction.
Face-to-face conversations confer linguis-
tic skills, along with the ability to have
conversationsto know when and how
to listen and contribute. This learning
process is highly technical and time con-
suming.
54
For example, during
face-to-face interaction, in addition to
hearing a voice and accompanying facial
expressions of the speakers face, the
speech sounds produce tiny bursts of
aspirationair pressure which hit the
childs skintactile information contrib-
uting to auditory perception.
55
Neurobiology of socialisation
The development of empathy and com-
passion requiring subtle skills of reading
the nonverbal nuances of othersemo-
tions involve similar learning processes
which appear to have a neural basis. For
example, the insular cortex has been iden-
tied as a key brain mechanism involved
in experiencing the emotional states of
others and is thought to underlie egalitar-
ian behaviour in humans.
56
Feeling
empathy for a friends emotional suffer-
ing activates affective pain regions (dorsal
anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and
insula) associated with having rsthand
experience of the same suffering.
57
The
learning effects of routinely experiencing
such social emotions are reected neuro-
logically. The deliberate cultivation of
compassionthrough compassion train-
ingfor empathic responses are associated
with changes in functional
neuroplasticity.
58
At the same time, researchers conduct-
ing functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) research have expressed
concern that when using the internet, for
example, the areas of the brain associated
with empathy showed virtually no
increase in stimulation, concluding
Young people are growing up immersed
in this technology and their brains are
more malleable, more plastic and chan-
ging than with older brains As the
brain evolves and shifts its focus towards
new technological skills, it drifts away
from fundamental social skills.
59 60
Mirror neurons
A childs brain is also believed to have
multiple mirror neuron systems that spe-
cialise in carrying out and understanding
not just the actions of others, but their
intentionsthe social meaning of their
behaviour and their emotions.
People who rank high on a scale meas-
uring empathy have particularly active
mirror neuron systems. A study of the
brain activity of 10-year-olds who
observed and imitated emotional expres-
sions and social skills found a direct rela-
tionship between the level of activity in
the childrens mirror neuron systems and
two distinct indicators of social func-
tioning in typically developing children:
empathy and social skills. The authors
concluded that the importance of observ-
ing and copying everyday social beha-
viours and the mirror neuron system
may indeed be relevant to social func-
tioning in everyday life during typical
human development.
61
It may be that children must exercise
specic brain areas and systems regularly
and extensively in situ, in order to
develop crucial social and emotional skills
or decits will emerge later.
Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0 3
Leading article
A meta-analysis of 72 studies on
empathy conducted between 1979 and
2009 among almost 14 000 university
students found the biggest drop in
empathy after the year 2000. College kids
today are about 40 per cent lower in
empathy than their counterparts of 20 or
thirty years ago, as measured by standard
tests of this personality trait.The
authors believe that the sheer increase in
child and adolescent ST during this time
could be one very important factor, and
concluded that the rise of social media
may also play a role in the decline in
empathy: The ease of having friends
online might make people more likely to
just tune out when they dont feel like
responding to othersproblems, a behav-
iour that could carry over ofine.They
also believe electronic media has contrib-
uted to a social environment that works
against slowing down and listening to
someone who requires sympathy.
62
Returning to the potential role of ST
in psychosocial learning, it is known that
younger children experience considerable
difculty when translating to real life
what they see on a screen. Children learn
tasks better from a live demonstration
than from an equivalent televised demon-
stration, a problem referred to as the video
decit.
63
This effect becomes more pro-
nounced and may persist at older ages as
the task complexity increasesand psy-
chosocial tasks, such as perceiving and
interpreting others actions, emotions
and intentions are highly complex.
Regarding the daily time available for
children to learn psychosocial skills
through face-to-face interactions, studies
at Stanford University have led to a dis-
placementtheory of internet use:
In short, no matter how time online is
measured and no matter which type of
social activity is considered, time spent
on the Internet reduces time spent in
face-to-face relationshipsan hour on
the Internet reduces face-to-face time
with family by close to twenty-
four minutes.
64
Sigman reported that between 1987
and 2007 the number of hours per day of
face-to-face social interaction declined
markedly as the use of electronic media
has increased.
65
INTERVENTIONS
There is good evidence that childrensST
can be reduced through simple measures,
mainly raising parental awareness. A sys-
tematic review by researchers at Harvard
Medical School recently reported that 29
studies achieved signicant reductions in
TV viewing or screen-media use.
66
Research by the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC), along
with other studies, has found parental
rules and limits on ST effectively reduce
ST, as does not having screens in bed-
rooms.
67 68
The CDC study also found a
negative dose-response relationship
between weekly physical activity and the
risk of exceeding recommended ST limits,
recommending the promotion of physical
activity as an additional means of redu-
cing ST.
Role modelling is another important
factor. Parent and child levels of screen
viewing are strongly related: children
who live in a household that promotes
TV-watching (TV is on when the child
comes home from school, and meals are
eaten in front of the TV) are more likely
to watch excessive amounts of television
themselves. If parents watch television
for more than 4 h/day, their son and
daughter, respectively, will be 10.5 and
three times more likely to watch it for
more than 4 h/day too.
69
RECOMMENDATIONS
The associations between ST and health
risks are reported to occur generally
beyond exposure of 2 h/day. Yet the
average child is exposed to three times
this amount. Therefore, reducing total
daily ST for children, and delaying the
age at which they start, could provide sig-
nicant advantages for their health and
well-being. Although popular phrases
such as striking a balanceor everything
in moderationmay sound reassuringly
sensible, one of the main obstacles in
encouraging parents to reduce their chil-
drens ST is the vagueness of the terms
moderationand excessive.
Paediatricians must now dene these
terms by rst considering ST as simply
another form of consumption measured
in units of hours/minutes consumed per
day: a simple public health concept to
grasp and act upon. Considering the
existing empirical research and position
of medical bodies and governments in
other countries, the following guidance
on recreational ST (eg, before and after
school) are only ideals for parents. Even
if they are not adhered to, it is important
to establish such ideals as a reference
point to work from.
Eighty per cent of adult brain size
growth occurs during a childsrst
3 years, when they may be most vul-
nerable to the effects of screen media.
There should be a buffer zone in the
early years, whereby this stage of child
development is cordoned offfrom
premature exposure to screen media.
Screen viewing should be delayed, or
minimised, until age 3 years.
Encourage no screens in childrens
bedrooms.
Parents of younger children should be
advised to choose screen material with
a slower pace, less novelty and more
of a single narrative quality.
Parents should be encouraged to
monitor and control the time their
children spend on hand-held computer
games/media.
Ideal discretionary ST limits are:
37 years: 0.51 h/day
712 years: 1 h
1215 years: 1.5 h
16+ years: 2 h
Parents must take into consideration
how much time their children are spend-
ing doing homework on computers
before coming to a decision on discretion-
ary ST for their child.
Parents should be aware of the role-
modelling inuence their own viewing
habits may have on their children
along with the potential inuence of
background or passivemedia.
Information about infants and tod-
dlers watching screens should be
included within maternity ward birth
packsgiven to mothers.
Health visitors should be aware of
medical evidence and advise new
parents.
Nurseries and day care centres should
make parents aware of this issue, as is
the case in Belgium and France.
Schools should adopt a position on
the amount of time children spend in
front of a screen in and out of school
and communicate this to pupils and
parents.
DISCUSSION
The study of STas a public health subject
is relatively new, and the associations
between ST and health risk cited in the
observational studies above do not prove
direct causation. While it is not possible
within the connes of this paper to
describe and compare the design and inde-
pendent variables, including the demo-
graphic prole of each study, others are
beginning to do so. For example, a
meta-analysis of relevant studies, includ-
ing some of the above, involving
European, US and Australian populations
on ST and risk of Type 2 Diabetes, CVD
and all-cause mortality carried out at the
Harvard School of Public Health, included
large sample sizes, long durations of
follow-up, and well established prospect-
ive studies. In addition, their pooled
4Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0
Leading article
estimates were based on prospective ana-
lyses with detailed adjustment for a wide
range of confounding variables. After
adjusting for BMI or other obesity mea-
sures and dietary variables, the associa-
tions with health risk still remained
highly signicant.
15
The various studies nding associations
between ST and subsequent attention
problems were predominantly prospective
and controlled for relevant confounding
variables including pre-existing attention
problems.
3841
Several of the above
studies on STand psychosocial well-being
used cross-sectional designs, making it
more difcult to determine whether
higher levels of ST were associated with
the development of negative well-being,
or negative well-being preceded higher
levels of ST.
4750
For example, whether
children with psychological difculties,
such as extreme shyness, are more likely
to gravitate towards ST over more soci-
able activities.
However, the prospective longitudinal
Canadian study controlling for pre-
existing psychosocial problems found sig-
nicant associations with ST.
52
There are additional concerns not
addressed above, regarding safeguarding
children from online exploitation and
exposure to inappropriate material. There
are also emerging concerns about the
potential effect of 3D screens on the
development of the childs stereoscopic
vision and depth perception through pos-
sible alterations in the development of
the fusion centerof the brain.
Interestingly, in their Nintendo 3DS
ParentsInformation, 3D Concerns,
Nintendo of America states, children 6
and under should not use the 3D feature
of the Nintendo 3DS system.
70
The simple arithmetic of hours of
eye-to-screen contact versus eye-to-eye
contact are making clear the profound
implications of such extensive ST for
family and social relationships. In 2007,
when children had access to far fewer
screens, a large-scale study by Britains
Childrens Society found that television
alone was already displacing the parental
role, eclipsing by a factor of ve or ten
the time parents spend actively engaging
with children.
An ongoing study of families in situ by
the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles
has found that social disengagement is
rapidly increasing, as side-by-side and
eye-to-eye human interactions in the
home are being displaced by the
eye-to-screen relationship. It was reported
that family members seldom came
together as a group.The number of
parents who were ignored or unacknow-
ledged on their return home because chil-
dren were otherwise engaged in [screen]
activitycomprised a substantial percent-
age of observed behavior. The high level
of being unacknowledged encountered by
fathers when they reunited with their chil-
dren was particularly strikingThese
latter results are particularly noteworthy.
Social scientists have long documented the
near universality of positive behavior in
the form of greetings when two or more
people reunite after being apart for a
period of time. Greetings recognize a
persons arrival, status and display positive
intentions that universally facilitate the
transition into social interaction with
another.ST has changed this.
71
Although this paper is concerned with
ST, when one includes screen content
which may be very much at odds with
the values and desires of parents, but
which children may be absorbing for
many hours a day, the distorting effect
on the parental role in imparting their
own values and providing boundaries for
adolescence could be considerable. A
decade ago, in their Analysis of
Childrens Programming Provision, the
British Governments Broadcasting
Standards Commission concluded The
television is almost like a member of the
family in its own right. With subsequent
birth of multiple screens, today extensive
ST appears to have created the three-
parent family.
Both within and outside the family,
children learn the rules of relationships
through extensive routine face-to-face
experience. Yet, as social media consumes
a larger portion of a childs daily life, this
is likely to create difculties in extrapolat-
ing on-line un-boundariedrelationships
to those of the realworld, thereby
affecting those relationships.
The family environment has been
described as an ecosystem of interruption
technologies. Background media that is
not being actively viewed by the child is
increasingly associated with developmen-
tal risks. A study of 56-year-olds found
that both active TV viewing and back-
ground passiveTV exposure was related
to shorter sleep duration, sleeping disor-
ders and overall sleep disturbances.
Moreover, passive exposure to TV of more
than 3 h/day was strongly related to
sleep disturbances, therefore, parents
should control the quantity of TV
viewing and limit childrens exposure
to passive TV.
72
A study of 13-year-olds
found that background TV signicantly
reduced the amount of time they played
with their toys, and the amount of time
they spent in focused attention during
play. Researchers concluded, These nd-
ings have implications for subsequent
cognitive development.
73
Researchers
have also found both the quantity and
the quality of interactions between
parents and children decline markedly
when background TV is on, which may
have a negative impact on develop-
ment.
74
Current US estimates for chil-
dren 8 months to 8 years of age are 3.9 h
of background TV per day.
75
The report
by AAP recommends that parents and
caregivers recognize that their own
[background] media use can have a nega-
tive effect on children. The AAP consid-
ers claims by media industry executives
that educational media programmes are
meant to be watched by both the parent
and the child to facilitate social interac-
tions and the learning process as having
quite the opposite effect.
12
There are limitations in simply advis-
ing parents to reduce childrensST.As
with many preventative health initia-
tives, such advice may be least effective
in families where it matters most.
However, it is wrong to assume that it is
simply the underprivileged families being
referred to. The AAP recently reported
Parents who believe that educational
television is very important for healthy
developmentare twice as likely to keep
the television on all or most of the
time.
12
Most parents want to reduce
health risks for their children, provided
they understand the rationale behind the
advisory, and a clear course of action is
offered. For example, between 1996 and
2007, children in England, exposed to
passive smoking, declined by nearly 70%.
Most interestingly, declines were greatest
in the 2 years immediately preceding legis-
lation as the result of, it is thought, the
media campaigns and greater publicity on
the impacts of passive smoking during
this period. Subsequent research has
found that absolute declines in exposure
were greater in those most exposed at the
outset including those living in lower
sociodemographic status households.
76
At the moment, most parents and phy-
sicians are unaware of ST as a health
issue, and if they do harbour concerns,
they remain unaware of the rationale or a
clear rule of thumb as a course of action.
It is, therefore, an imperative to rst
redress this knowledge void. Given that
many parents have grown to rely on ST
as a means of occupying their children—‘the
electronic babysitter’—any guidance on
ST would benet from the inclusion of
suggestions for developing constructive
practical alternatives to ST.
Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0 5
Leading article
Although children may be regularly
involved in various screen activities and
using different screen devices, most ST is
recreational, that is, discretionary, and it
is this ST that should be the primary
public health target for reduction. There
may be scope for further reductions.
Preschool and infant schools, if made
aware of this issue, could easily reduce
ST, as much of it is predominantly discre-
tionary at that stage of education. Junior
and secondary schools could reconsider
the extent to which entertainment TV
programmes and lms are used as lessons
and as golden time. There is a concern
that not to expose young children to
screen technology puts them at a devel-
opmental and educational disadvantage.
Furthermore, it is often assumed that if
children do not get used toscreen tech-
nology early on, they will in some way
be intimidated by it, or be less competent
at using it later. However, research has
found that even Rhesus monkeys are
comfortable with, and capable of using,
the same screen technology that children
are exposed to.
77
The charity, Orangutan
Outreach, has been conducting trials
gauging iPad interaction with their apes.
The director has reported Its not really
toy-like because they are engaging with
them as devices itsdenitely going in
the cognitive direction.
78
Political implications
Perhaps because ST is not a dangerous
substance or a visibly risky activity, it has
eluded the scrutiny that other health
issues attract. Additionally, there is little
funding and public gratitude in looking
for the negative effects of the worlds
favourite pastime. In 2006, American
paediatric researchers writing in the
American Medical AssociationsArchives
of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine asked
rhetorically: Why is it that something
that is widely recognised as being so
inuential and potentially dangerous has
resulted in so little effective action?To b e
sure, there has been some lack of political
will to take on the enormously powerful
and inuential entertainment industry
[Screen] media need to be recognised as a
major public health issue.
79
A problem of provenance
Rather than paediatricians, it has been
the academics in ICT, media literacy, edu-
cation, marketing and social and cogni-
tive psychology, whose research is often
funded by TV, software and technology
industries, who have dominated research,
public and professional understanding of,
and policy considerations on, ST and
child health. Few seem to have spotted
the most salient point: their focus is not
on child health, but as one leading insti-
tution advising successive British govern-
ments states, research focuses on
childrens and young peoplesinteractions
with [authors italics] electronic media,
and on media education.
Information hygiene
Moreover, while medical journals, such as
the BMJ group have instituted measures
to identify competing interests and
sources of funding, particularly regarding
the pharmaceutical industry, in order to
minimise such inuence within their
publications, thereby maintaining a high
standard of information hygiene, the
culture and standard of hygiene with
respect to research on screen media and
children is very different in media, psych-
ology and education journals.
As the most valid impartial arbiter of
child health, British and European paedi-
atric medicine must in future be at the
centre of research, public understanding
and policy formation on ST.
In other areas of child health and
development, when considering the
potential effects of profound new devel-
opments, the paediatric health profes-
sion instinctively adopts a principle of
precaution. Yet, to date, the increasingly
excessive levels of child ST have been
met with relative silence. While many
questions remain regarding the precise
nature of the association between
ST and adverse outcomes, the advice
from a growing number of both research-
ers and other medical associations and
government health departments else-
where is becoming unequivocal: reduce
ST.
1017 21 24 29 35 38 41 8083
Irrespective
of whether this will endear paediatricians
to the public or not, Britain and Europes
medical establishments, including the
RCPCH, EAP and Department of Health,
should now formally express some
concern over ST.
A drop in viewing gures may be bad
for TV executivesblood pressure, but
may prove to be very good for child
health.
CONCLUSION
Children of all ages are spending more
time than ever before, watching screen
media. Viewing screen media is physiolo-
gically distinct from other forms of sed-
entary behaviour, with average daily ST
increasingly considered an independent
risk factor, often exhibiting a dose-
response relationship with disease and
unfavourable child development
outcomes. As health risks are reported to
occur beyond exposure of 2 h of ST per
day, although the average child is exposed
to three times this amount, a robust ini-
tiative to encourage a reduction in daily
recreational ST could lead to signicant
improvements in child health and devel-
opment. Britain and European medical
establishments should consider ST as a
separate entity from sedentary behaviour,
and offer an advisory on the average
number of hours per day young children,
in particular, are viewing screen media,
and the age at which they start.
Contributors Author and guarantor: AS.
Funding None.
Competing interests The author declares: no support
from any organisation for the submitted work; no
nancial relationships with any organisations that might
have an interest in the submitted work in the previous
3 years.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned;
externally peer reviewed.
Accepted 11 July 2012
Arch Dis Child 2012;0:18
doi:10.1136/archdischild-2012-302196
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8Arch Dis Child Month 2012 Vol 0 No 0
Leading article
... some extent (e.g., participation in educational programs) [4], prolonged screen use in childhood has been linked to negative developmental health outcomes including obesity [5], behavior problems [6], emotion regulation problems [7], speech delays [8], lower executive functioning [9] and academic problems [10]. It has further been suggested that time spent in screen-based activities displaces free and active play in childhood to some extent, interferes with social interactions (e.g., with family and peers) and impacts sleep duration and quality [9,11,12]. Some research suggests that screen time may be particularly concerning for children from low income families. ...
... High levels of screen time during the early years can be potentially detrimental for achieving developmental milestones, especially school readiness. While causality cannot be implied in this study, longer screen time can interfere with positive and health-promoting experiences such as physical activity, social contact with peers and family, and good sleep hygiene [12]. Moreover, high levels of screen time are of concern for developmental health because it tends to displace free play-based and leisure activities that enhance cognitive and social-emotional skills that are key in promoting Kindergarten readiness [11,55]. ...
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