Issue 53, January 2013.


Addiction to tablets and smartphone screens may be damaging our long-term health

As the snow continues to fall and winter sets in, many children in Ukraine will be spending their Christmas and New Year holidays in front of computers, televisions, mobile telephones, I-pads and hand held game screens. As we enjoy the holiday season, we should perhaps pause to consider the effects that this array of screens is having on the development of the younger generation. The health implications for children of excess screen time, as it is called, are numerous – both physical and emotional.

Entire world addicted to screen time

Average screen time for adolescents in Canada and America is now estimated at seven and a half hours a day, while for UK and European children the figure is six hours. In general, the figures are marginally lower for younger children. My guess is that Ukraine is not far behind the daily European averages. By the age of seven, a child growing up today may have spent a whole year in front of a screen – rising to three entire years by the age of eighteen. 
Inevitably, this carries with it potentially serious health implications. While other sitting activities such as reading and painting tend to decrease blood pressure, screen time has actually been shown to increase it. Increased screen time is associated with a heightened risk of diabetes and heart disease in later life.
Above average screen time is also linked with child obesity. Watching screens and eating simultaneously sends confusing messages to the brain, especially about satiation – the feeling that a meal has been completed – leading to overeating.
Whilst screen time impacts on our body’s chemistry and metabolism, it also has an effect on the neurochemicals in our brains and has been linked to a range of behavioural and psychological disorders. Excess screen time in children is associated with an increase in many of the factors that would be used to diagnose ADHD. Many computer and video games also trigger the release of large quantities of the brain chemical called dopamine which is found in all forms of addictive behaviour. Some have argued that the release of this brain chemical is the cause of the under-reported but growing issue of addiction to such games.

The rise of Facebook depression 

Social media is also having a huge impact on the lives of our children, who are being exposed to often untested and unsupervised forms of mass communication and accessing adult forums from a very early age. While the dangers of children’s chat sites and social media being infiltrated by paedophiles are well publicised and something all parents should be aware of, the broader risks posed by social media childhood development are not yet clearly understood either by doctors or parents. The term ‘Facebook depression’ has recently been coined to describe the psychological problems children are experiencing along with habitual use of social media. Many of those who spent more than two hours daily on social media registered feelings of low self-esteem. In contrast, children playing with their peers and siblings seem to have much greater self esteem and suffer less from depression. Studies have also shown that each extra hour of screen time per day results in a decrease in classroom engagement and increased risk of bullying and victimisation at school.

Losing our ability to empathize

 The development of a full set of social skills in a child’s mind is a long and complex process which must be constantly bolstered and reinforced by diverse social activities and broad person-to-person interaction. Empathy – the ability to relate to somebody else’s pain and suffering - is the perfect example. This is a complex social skill that develops via years of interaction and experience in the world, first as a child and later as an adolescent. As we spend more and more time closed off to the world and glued to our handheld devices, we may be in danger of gradually losing our ability to empathize. Recent psychological studies have shown that college students in America today are approximately half as empathetic as they were just twenty years ago. It is thought that this may be the direct result of increased screen time. 
Functional MRI scanning – using an MRI scan whilst the brain is working - has shown that during online social media contact there is no activity from the brain centres which are thought to help empathy develop. In contrast, these brain centres are highly active during face-to-face contact. These studies suggest that allowing excessive screen time risks denying the child or adolescent the social interaction experience which is crucial to their healthy physical and psychological development. The results are already with us and are becoming increasingly apparent in rising rates of depression among children along with the growing inability of many kids to interact with their peers and colleagues.
I have chosen to write about the health implications of excess screen time because it is rare in medicine to have a subject which has such impact on the lives of a future generation. Excess screen time is one of the major health risks facing today’s children, with the potential to continue doing social and physical damage on into their adult lives. My recommendations to parents are clear – zero screen time for kids under three years of age, and half an hour for pre-schoolers. School age children should be allowed one to two hours a day, but no more. Additionally, all parents need to be aware that their use of screens creates a model for their children.
I am indebted to Dr Aric Sigman who provided many of the research facts used in this article.

Dr. Richard Styles ( ) is a British family physician at American Medical Centres in Kyiv. He has 32 years experience of practicing family medicine in the UK, Ukraine and elsewhere, and for three years worked for the EU in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in developing family medicine in Ukraine.