Do children have too much screen time and does it matter how much time they spend on iPads, smartphones and laptops?
12:00 17 October 2015
Want to know how to make your children happier? asks Sheena Grant.
It’s simple, according to research conducted at the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research: get them playing more sport and limit their access to all kinds of screens.
Research fellow Dr Cara Booker, who led the study, hopes the findings - being featured at an event for policy makers, health campaigners and organisations supporting parents in London this week - will start a conversation about the best way of dealing with the seismic changes computers, smartphones and games consoles have brought to young people’s lives.
She argues that there is a very good reason for parents to get tech savvy and know what their children are doing online and advocates introducing guidelines for how and when youngsters use the internet, social media, television and other screen-based technology.
Her research, based on a survey of almost 5,000 British 10 to 15-year-olds, found heavy screen-users were less happy than their peers who used the technology less often and more likely to suffer social and emotional problems. Those who played more sport seemed to be happier and have fewer emotional difficulties.
“Lots of countries around the world have guidelines for screen use,” says Dr Booker. “Most are based around TV and recommend things like children under two shouldn’t watch more than an hour a day. The UK doesn’t have any of these guidelines. We have specific guidelines about other health and wellbeing-related things, such as alcohol consumption. It might be helpful to have something around screen use for teachers, social workers and parents to point to.
“Also, do social media companies have a part to play in this debate and if so, what is it? We are interested in starting a conversation at least.”
Dr Booker’s research may be the latest to raise concerns about the effect of screens on children’s health and wellbeing but it is far from alone.
In 2011 East Anglian charity Norcas warned that addiction to playing computer games was set to become a major issue after its research showed large numbers of 10 to 16-year-olds would be lost without them.
And in 2012 psychologist Dr Aric Sigman suggested children’s screen time should be curbed to stave off development and health problems. Writing in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr Sigman said a child born today would have spent a full year glued to screens by the time they reach the age of seven.
Then, of course, there are the dangers associated with cyberbullying and online grooming.
Dr Booker’s research, which was published earlier this year, looked at five questions about screen-based media use and how long children spent watching TV, chatting on social websites, playing computer and console games in a normal day, as well as how much sport they played.
“We found a high level of screen-use is associated with lower levels of happiness and higher levels of social and emotional difficulties,” she says. “We really find this in high levels of TV watching (more than four hours a day) and moderate levels of chatting on social websites (one to three hours a day).”
The study showed those who played most sport spent less time on screens.
Young people who chatted on social websites or played computer or console games between one and three hours a day were about half as likely to be happy as those who used the technology for less than an hour. Those using for more than four hours a day had 57% lower odds of happiness.
Taking part in sport was associated with greater happiness and fewer social and emotional difficulties.
“If children were chatting on social websites less than an hour a day 13% reported being happy compared to 6% who chatted for more than four hours a day,” says Dr Booker. “Those kids who participate in sport less than a day a week were much less happy than those who participate seven days a week.We found youths who were more active were happy even when taking into account differing levels of screen-based media use.
“We know that screen use increases over time and, for example, 15-year-olds are more likely to be able to have a Twitter profile than 10-year-olds. We also know that levels of happiness decrease over time. Now we are looking to see if these changes are associated with each other.”
What the research couldn’t reveal, however, is whether greater childhood unhappiness and social isolation led to more screen use or the other way round.
“We are hoping to come closer to being able to answer that question with the analysing we are doing now,” says Dr Booker.
All this matters, not just because children’s wellbeing is at stake, but because evidence suggests unhappy children go on to be unhappy adults. And because most screen technology is so new, there is little knowledge about its long-term effects.
“We do know there is some correlation between wellbeing as an adolescent and as an adult,” says Dr Booker. “So if you’re starting off on a poor trajectory you want to change things to improve your outlook.
“If children are using social media in substitute for physical activity that has major public health implications. We already have large parts of the population who have health problems because they are not physically active. If you are active as an adolescent you are more likely to be active as an adult. Screen-based media, sports participation and wellbeing are related to each other. I am not going to say, ‘don’t use any screens’. But everything comes down to moderation. Most parents will know when it is getting to be too much and when they should be trying to do something about it. Talking and being active with your kids - not just sending them off to do activities on their own - is the way forward.
“Adolescents have a reputation for being rebellious. If you say they can’t do something they will find a way to do it and perhaps a way that might be less healthy. You don’t want it to become a secret they are hiding from you. My advice would be to set guidelines and limits may be able to go up as a child gets older.”
Every generation has its challenges, says Dr Booker.
“Teenagers don’t always think of the consequences and having everything ‘out there’ brings its own risks,” she adds. “But I’m not sure that if you put teenagers from another era in the same place they wouldn’t be doing the same things.”