Wellbeing: Screen-time and our students

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A lot of the school work children undertake is now online. At the same time there is a range of research raising concerns about the negative impact of too much screen-time. Karen Sullivan takes a look

On the train from Newcastle to London last weekend, I watched with increasing disbelief as a young couple set up their two-year-old daughter with not one screen, but two, in her pushchair.

One iPad played Peppa Pig (on a loop), the other had an interactive game. The child’s attention flitted between the two, eyes darting, fingers nimbly negotiating both, throughout the entire three-hour journey. When we disembarked, she threw a spectacular tantrum and I couldn’t help but wonder why her parents didn’t associate this with her train entertainment centre. And it got me thinking.

When my eldest sons were young, I banned screens, apart from an hour or two of television, during the week. With my youngest, however, not only does he have to check in to a computer/iPad to find out what homework has been assigned, but a solid proportion of that work is also online – in particular, languages and maths.

So on a busy night, he can spend three hours on a screen for legitimate reasons, and, of course, short of standing over his shoulder for that period of time, there is no way to check that he’s not logging into Instagram or watching YouTube videos.

Screens are, without a doubt, the most common form of relaxation and entertainment for adolescents, so an entire evening can be spent with eyes glued to an electronic device. So does this matter?

Research undertaken in 2010 found that the average child spent 7.5 hours each day using media. However, because of multi-tasking, children actually crammed 10.75 hours of media use into that 7.5-hour period of time. On a typical day, this study also revealed that eight to 18-year-olds spent 4.39 hours viewing television, 2.31 hours listening to music, 1.29 hours using computers, and 1.13 hours playing video games.

In the UK, the Connected Kids report, compiled by Childwise, found that teenaged girls now spend an average of 7.5 hours a day watching screens, compared with 3.5 hours of TV viewing in 1995. It also found that children are now “multi-screening”, using more than one device at the same time.

One study, undertaken by researchers at Oxford University, found that screen-time can have a positive impact, enhancing creativity, communication skills and development. They discovered that wellbeing “peaked” at four hours and 17 minutes of computer use, and two hours for SmartPhones. But here’s the catch, this study only examined the perceived happiness of the subjects and not the implications on physical health.

Researchers in China found that too much internet use can lead to brain shrinkage, while others suggest that kids can become hyper-aroused, suffering from electronic screen syndrome (ESS), which, quite apart from anything else, can disrupt sleep and place repeated stress on the nervous system. Some of the defining characteristics of this syndrome include mood swings, anxiety, irritability, low frustration tolerance, poor self-regulation, social immaturity, poor eye contact, insomnia, learning difficulties, and poor short-term memory.

The sleep issue is more critical than you might imagine. Poor quality or inadequate sleep is associated with impaired immunity, metabolism (which can lead to weight gain and obesity), diabetes, hyperactivity, behaviour problems and poor performance at school. In fact, one study, which assessed 1,537 students from three secondary schools in New Jersey, found that students who reported more use of instant messaging after “lights out” were more likely to report lower academic performance.

Another study (Uhis YT, Michikyan M, et al, 2014) found that cognitive empathy (the mental ability to take another’s perspective) can be damaged by excessive screen-time, which is particularly important as the neurons involved undergo dramatic changes during adolescence. The study from UCLA concluded that “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people – is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills”.

Other studies have suggested a link between excessive screen-time and poor behaviour, attention, an increase in risky behaviours (including smoking, drinking, drug use and those of a sexual nature), poor nutrition, and higher levels of bullying, depression, aggressive behaviours and violence.

So what is the answer, at a time when an increasing number of activities are being driven online? And how can we reduce the impact on emotional and physical help? That’s what we’ll look at in my next article (on May 25).

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

Selected references

  • Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8 to 18-year-olds. Kaiser Family Foundation Study: http://bit.ly/2pF71sm
  • Electronic Screen Syndrome: An unrecognised disorder? Screen-time and the rise of mental disorders in children. Psychology Today, July 2012: http://bit.ly/2pY1zno
  • Effects of Instant Messaging on School Performance in Adolescents, Grover K, Pecor K, Malkowski M, Kang L, et al (via Science Daily): http://bit.ly/2qyiV7s


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