'Digital heroin for children':Youngsters spend five hours a day glued to their smartphones and televisions

We are a nation of technology addicts – and the habit starts early. Britain’s children are glued to their smartphones, tablets and televisions for a shocking five hours a day or more, according to an investigation published last week by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

Previous research has indicated a third of British under-fives own a tablet or smartphone.

And the obsession seems to be fed by parents, with four in five believing that gadgets aid development – in contrast to growing concern among medical experts.

Just this month the American Society of Paediatrics produced detailed guidelines linking screen time to the risk of a child becoming overweight for life, sleep disturbance and developmental problems. And the more time parents spent in front of a screen, the more their children did.

A growing body of evidence suggests all this is having a devastating effect on mental and physical health.

Health bodies in the US now recommend that children under two should have no access to screens, under-fives an hour, and those under 18 a maximum of two hours. There are no such guidelines in the UK.

So just how worried should you be? The Mail on Sunday spoke to leading researchers – and parents – to help you decide whether it’s time for you and your children to switch off, before it’s too late…

'Digital heroin for children'

Dr Nicholas Kardaras is a leading American psychotherapist, addictions specialist and senior clinical consultant at the Dunes East Hampton, one of the world’s top rehabilitation units. He is also author of the recently published book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids. He says: ‘Screen time is “digital heroin” for children – especially those under ten.

‘Some accuse me of scaremongering for comparing it to addictive substances such as tobacco and drugs. But I have treated patients with crystal meth problems and can tell you it’s harder to get someone over a digital addiction. Unlike illicit drugs, screens are everywhere.

‘It’s not just children, though. The average age for a video game addict is 35. But children are particularly at risk from screens because the pre-frontal cortex – our personality centre – doesn’t finish developing until their early 20s.

‘A recent study by scientists at Indiana University saw teenagers who didn’t usually play video games tasked with playing for two weeks.

‘In this short space of time, brain images before and after showed changes in the frontal cortex that mirrored substance addiction.

‘I urge parents not to fall victim to the digital babysitter. I have nine-year-old twins and they are not allowed near screens like iPads. Look at Steve Jobs – he famously gave his kids a very low-tech childhood. Ask yourself why.’

'IPads could benefit brains

Dr Duncan Astle is a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. He says: ‘There is no compelling evidence that screen use in itself has a significant positive or negative effect on the brain. That is because it is incredibly difficult to study in a tightly controlled way, as so many other factors will also influence how long a child might spend in front of a screen. These may include parental discipline and levels of parental education, for example. It’s likely to be a combination of all these things that affects brain development.

‘Also, just because something such as screen time may affect the brain, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. With gaming, for example, research shows players have better attention and memory skills.

‘I haven’t seen any research about children being addicted to iPads. People can become addicted to pretty much anything if they are exposed enough. For all we know, iPads may be beneficial for young children’s brains. Other scientists are using the devices to create apps for children with autism, for example.’

'A tragedy we must address'

Literary specialist Sue Palmer is a former headteacher and author of Toxic Childhood: How Modern Life Is Damaging Our Children. She says: ‘Children today get far less chance to experience what I call real play.

‘A recent survey by online retailer Ao.com revealed children spending on average 17 hours a week in front of a screen, almost double the time spent playing outside.

‘This is deeply concerning. Children need to experience the real, live world to understand it – not see it on a screen.

‘We know from research that real play develops initiative, problem-solving skills and many other positive traits, such as a can-do attitude, perseverance and emotional resilience. It’s vital for social skills, too.

‘By playing together, youngsters learn to get along with other people. They discover how others’ minds work, developing empathy.

‘The first seven years of a child’s life are particularly vital to their learning and development. For example, by this age they must master physical co-ordination of large and small movements, such as focusing their eyes in different positions.

‘The rate of myopia, or short-sightedness, among young people in the UK has doubled in the past 50 years, and this has been linked to too much screen time. I believe this is a tragedy we must address urgently.’

'Shelter kids from the mob'

Writer and broadcaster Katie Hopkins lives in London with her husband Mark Cross, 51, a designer, and their three children, aged 12, 11 and seven. She says: ‘My little gang is right in that tricky bit between still having to do roughly what they are told and believing they are ready to take on the world.

‘They are the only kids in their classes who don’t have a phone or an iPad. That’s a tough gig for children who just want to fit in.

‘Other parents have clearly caved in to pressure from someone half their height. They say, “They have a phone for emergencies, to keep them safe.”

‘I don’t believe a daily fix of Snapchat really classifies as an emergency. My kids used to moan that they were hard done by. But seeing the amount of tension and drama that phones and tech bring to school, they understand another side.

‘As a mother, I see my role as a protector, sheltering them for a while, giving them freedom from incessant updates, freedom from the mentality of the mob, freedom to find out who they are before someone else tries to decide it for them. It’s the same reason I leave my phone in the apartment when we are on holiday. I love my job, but I leave all my life online to give my family freedom from interruptions. We take time to look up, not down, and to escape the clamour of strangers for the quiet of the people we know best.’

'Essential... in moderation'

Tessa Dunlop is a presenter on the BBC show Coast. She lives in London with her husband and their eight-year-old daughter, Mara. She says: ‘My mother winces when she sees my daughter, aged eight, hunched over an iPad. She’s learnt not to say, “In my day…” We know the script. In her day children climbed trees, played pooh sticks and sent handwritten thank-you letters.

‘My daughter and her friends can do those things but their skill set and leisure time has an additional technical savvy that leaves older generations standing.

‘Many of the exuberant, emoticon-ridden texts that Mara sends her granny are lost on their recipient, who has not yet progressed to a smartphone.

‘Being adept on touch screens and computers is not a choice for today’s children, it is an essential tool for handling the modern world. If they didn’t associate screen time with fun, it wouldn’t bode well for their future.

‘Of course many games are compelling and lines have to be drawn between healthy screen time and addictive, anti-social gaming.

‘Computers should not replace the spoken word; too many little boys go whole days uttering barely a sentence. Like Mum, I wince when children attend family meals with iPad in hand. It’s a question of moderation. Minecraft is great (think virtual Lego), but Minecraft at the expense of everything else is bad.’


HEALTH COMMENT: By Dr Ellie Cannon

What worries me most about screen time is the effect on relationships, not simply between adults but between parents and children. In my family, phones are banned at meal times or family times. We try to be strict as parents too and keep ours away but it’s not always easy – the kids tell us openly to put the phone away. My 13-year-old daughter has her own phone and my nine-year-old son has his own iPad, but TV time is restricted throughout the week to 30 to 60 minutes.

What advice would you give to parents concerned about children becoming addicted to screen time?

Parents are going to have to lead by example: we can’t tell our kids to turn off YouTube if they see us glued to our own screens. They will grow up mimicking that behaviour. I confess I’m guilty of using the virtual babysitter: it’s simpler, sometimes, to stick an iPad in a demanding toddler’s hands for a few hours when we’re busy, or plump them in front of the TV. But I really believe it comes at a price so should be treated a bit like sugar: very little, as a treat and not for everyday. And don’t get me started on toddlers watching iPads when eating out with their parents.

Have you seen any difference in patient behaviour as a result of modern screen exposure?

It seems so socially acceptable now to check a text in the middle of a conversation. I even have patients checking their phone during GP consultations with me. A mum recently checked her phone messages while I was examining her baby in my clinic. The non-verbal message given here is essentially: ‘I have to look at this as it could potentially be more important than you.’ Staring at the phone rather than engaging with her child is damaging to that relationship.

Do you treat any illnesses that are a result of too much screen time?

I have certainly advised reducing screen time for children with obesity or behaviour issues. This is more in the context of suggesting other activities to be doing instead, such as exercise and reading.

I would always recommend reducing screen time as part of insomnia discussions. Often sleeplessness, in adults and children, is made worse by screen time before bed in adults and kids.

Source: Daily Mail