Students Staff

28 November 2011

Are our children becoming glued to the screen?

Colchester Campus

An increasing proportion of English children are being exposed to high levels of screen time, regardless of whether they come from wealthy or poor backgrounds, according to new research from the University.

Contrary to higher television viewing being associated with adults living in deprived areas, children across the social scale are spending far too much time in front of a screen – be it the television and games console use to computers and smart phones.

In one study at Essex, run as part of the East of England Healthy Hearts Study, the team, led by Dr Gavin Sandercock, looked at the link between high screen time and children being less active and which specific elements of physical activity were linked with the amount of screen time. In a different study led by Ayodele Ogunleye, the same team called for a recommended screen time limit for youngsters to be adopted in the UK. The USA, Canada and Australia already have screen time recommendations for children of no more than two hours a day.

The latest research, published in the Journal of Public Health Advance Access, involved studying the screen time and physical activity of more than 6,200 10-15-year-olds.

Physical inactivity costs the English economy £8.2 billion a year, including the direct costs of treating lifestyle-related diseases and the indirect costs of sickness-related absence from work. However, with new labour-saving devices and more sedentary leisure pastimes, sedentary behaviours are increasing in the general population while physical activity is decreasing.

The study found that more than one in three English schoolchildren were exposed to screen time above the daily recommended level in USA, Canada and Australia. It also found that screen time not only replaces physically active pursuits at evenings and weekends, but children who, for instance, play a lot of computer games, are less active at school break times and even in PE lessons.

Despite the belief that poorer children, like poorer adults, have higher levels of screen time, the scientists at Essex found high screen time among children cut across every deprivation category.

“A sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for chronic disease,” explained Ayodele Ogunleye. “To increase physical activity in schoolchildren and to avoid future physical, mental and social health problems there are already guidelines in place. However, to help our youngsters become more physically active it seems that there should be guidance too on the recommended amount of screen time for children and teenagers.”

The team recommends that the Department of Health in England should adopt guidelines similar to those in the USA Canada and Australia recommending children spend no more than two hours a day, with an additional absolute upper limit of four hours.

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