Research from two US universities found that just an hour’s screen time a day can make kids prone to heightened levels of anxiety of depression. The result might be less self control, curiosity or emotional stability and a greater inability to finish tasks.
Adolescents are most at risk, as many older children and teenagers use their screens for social media and communication, rather than just watching TV like those under five might.
However, children’s brains are more sensitive to the effects of electronic devices as their brains are still developing. The US team said that establishing possible causes and outcomes is crucial to preventing low mental well being in children and teenagers.
‘Half of mental health problems develop by adolescence,’ Professor Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, and Professor Keith Campbell, of the University of Georgia, said.
‘Thus, there is an acute need to identify factors linked to mental health issues that are amenable to intervention in this population, as most antecedents are difficult or impossible to influence.
‘Compared to these more intractable antecedents of mental health, how children and adolescents spend their leisure time is more amenable to change.’ Profs Twenge and Cambell analysed data provided by the parents of more than 40,000 US children aged between two to 17 for a nationwide health survey in 2016.
The questionnaire asked about the youngsters’ existing medical care and whether they had any emotional, developmental or behavioural issues and behaviours.
Adolescents spending more than seven hours a day on screens were found to be twice as likely to have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression as those who only had an hour.
Pre-schoolers, or under fives, who were high users were twice as likely to often lose their temper, and 46 per cent more prone to not be able to calm down when excited.
While among 14 to 17-year-olds, more than four in ten (42.2%) of those who spent more than seven hours a day on screens were not capable of seeing tasks through to finish. This was compared with one in six (16.6%) who spent one hour daily and about a quarter (27.7%) for those engaged for four hours.
The research also showed that around one in eleven (9%) of 11 to 13-year-olds who spent an hour with screens daily were not curious or interested in learning new things. This was compared to one in seven (13.8%) compared who spent four hours and more than one in five (22.6%) who spent more than seven.
According to Prof Twenge, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ established screen time is one hour a day for those aged two to five, with a focus on high-quality programme – something she is backing. It also suggests a similar limit or around two hours for school aged children and adolescents, she said. In December 2017 the Oxford team found UK kids average daily screen time has grown in a generation from just under three hours to four hours and 45 minutes.
Experts warn ‘addicted’ children could be at risk of sleeplessness, obesity and fall victim to cyber-bullying, while losing valuable social skills through a lack of face-to-face contact.