Children should be banned from watching TV or using computer screens until the age of three, a leading health expert today warns.
Dr Aric Sigman says indulging in so-called “screen time” at a young age can lead to serious health and developmental problems, with links to heart disease, stroke and diabetes in later life as well as a string of psychosocial problems such as poor empathy skills and depression.
Yet, he notes, by the age of seven, a British child born today will have spent one full year of 24 hour days watching screens.
By the age of 10, kids have regular access to an average of five different screens at home, in the form of TVs, games consoles, smart phones, laptops and tablets.
And over the course of childhood youngsters spend more time watching TV than they spend in school.
Writing in BMJ title Archives of Disease in Childhood, biologist and psychologist Dr Sigman says the Government must take a stand and set clear guidelines for screen use in the same way they intervene in other health matters.
Measures should include delaying the age children start using any screens to at least three years old.
Children aged between three and seven should be limited to half an hour of screen time a day, rising to one hour between seven and 12, 1.5 hours between 12 and 15 and just two hours for teens aged 16 and over.
“Perhaps because screen time is not a dangerous substance or a visibly risky activity, it has eluded the scrutiny that other health issues attract,” he says.
“[But] the advice from a growing number of both researchers and medical associations and government departments elsewhere is becoming unequivocal: reduce screen time.”
Dr Sigman cites several published studies that show links between prolonged screen time and ill health, including increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes and other “biological effects associated with being sedentary that exercise does not seem to reverse”.
Screen time raises the risk of obesity, he says, not only through the concomitant inactivity but also because its use “[disrupts] food and hunger cues”.
And heavy screen time also seems to reduce attention span because of its effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine – which is also implicated in addictive behaviour.
“Screen ‘addiction’ is increasingly being used by physicians to describe the growing number of children engaging in screen activities in a dependent manner,” writes Dr Sigman.
Other reported psychosocial problems include “Facebook depression”, increased risk of disengagement and vulnerability to victimisation after high levels of screen time in early childhood; poor social skills; and an impaired ability to express empathy.
Although the issue is becoming part of the health agenda in the US, Canada and Australia, adds Dr Sigman, “to date, views of the British and European medical establishments on increasingly high levels of child screen time remain conspicuous by their absence”.