The message is clear from a pair of reports that tie childrens’ digital dependence to health issues: Rip the kids away from cell phones and tablets and make them play outside.
But doctors warn there’s no need to panic, and some parents have no plans on cutting back on their kids’ screen time at all.
“That sign in my pediatrician’s office that says, ‘Remember, no more than two hours of screen time per day,’ can go right in the garbage in my opinion,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a 36-year-old mom of two from Halfmoon, just north of Albany.
A widespread review by the World Cancer Research Fund — called Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective — found that sedentary behavior from increased exposure to cell phones, computers and other electronic entertainment is associated with weight gain, which ups the risk of 12 cancers.
The report, which looked at 80 studies involving more than 200,000 people, found that risks of colon, breast, endometrial cancer — a form of uterine cancer — and others jump with a lack of physical activity.
“New technologies have encouraged people to increase the time they spend engaging in sedentary behaviors such as sitting in cars and watching television as well as using computers, electronic entertainment and mobile phones,” the WCRF report reads.
A separate study by King’s College London, published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, found that playing computer games, along with other factors, is tied to an increased risk of nearsightedness in childhood.
The King’s College study states nearsightedness, in which distant objects appear blurred, is “becoming increasingly common, rising to an estimated 4.8 billion people worldwide by 2050 from 1.9 billion in 2010.”
“Although genetics are thought to play a part, we don’t think that they alone can explain why the number of people with myopia is rising so quickly,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Katie Williams, ophthalmology clinical research fellow at King’s College.
The authors also suggest that time spent playing computer games is not just problematic due to having devices close to eyes for long periods of time, but also means “less time outdoors — a factor previously found to increase myopia risk.”
Meanwhile, Campbell says she doesn’t keep track of — nor is she worried about — how often her elementary school-aged kids are glued to screens.
“Both children have ready access to devices when not at school as well as devices used in their classrooms,” the stay-at-home mom says. “In my son’s class they use iPads and, in my daughter’s, they use Chromebooks...We almost always have the TV on in addition to easy access to the computer, Kindle or iPad.”
Campbell says devices have been especially helpful for her 9-year-old son Patrick, who has moderate autism spectrum disorder, and has been labeled low-verbal and noncommunicative.
She says Patrick first began communicating with help from a symbol-based communication app on his iPad called Proloquo2Go, designed for those who can’t speak.
“My son has learned to communicate with the help of devices as he uses verbal communication relatively little,” Campbell said. “They help him self-soothe when he is upset and he puts on videos of favorite nursery rhymes. Playing video games has helped his manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination, problem solving skills.”
She adds that her 8-year-old, Hazel, cries over her math homework but loves playing Prodigy, an app that lets kids cast spells by solving math problems.
“I cannot express enough how helpful our family finds devices,” Campbell said. "My daughter watches shows on YouTube for fun, but also to do yoga, learn about the universe, spark her imagination, practice dance routines.”
In regard to the study that connects nearsightedness to computer game playing, Dr. Erin Walsh, co-director of pediatric ophthalmology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, says that the National Eye Institute suggests the current known risk factors for myopic development include not only genetic predisposition to myopia, but also environmental risk factors that are associated with less time spent outdoors and more time spent reading or doing near work.
“However, most children can adapt to these changes due to their ease to accommodate or focus without much effort,” Walsh says. She adds that there’s no evidence “that has been able to scientifically prove” the development of myopia with computer or device use.
“Many studies, including the above, have tried to equivocate time spent doing near work activities to also our growing dependence on electronic device use,” Walsh says. “However, many of the studies are flawed in design based on their retrospective design and lack of standardized exams.
She adds that, “While we do feel this is important to study, we need further well-designed prospective research to be able to accurately correlate these risk factors and give our parents effective visual counselling.”
But if your kid is spending too much time on digital media, they can develop eye-strain or dry eye with symptoms including headaches, tearing, burning or decreased vision, according to Walsh. She recommends taking frequent breaks, using devices in well-lit areas and holding devices up to eye level.
She points out that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against the use of devices for kids under age 2, and suggests one-hour device limits for those ages 2 to 5, and two hours max for those over 5. “These guidelines are not only important to reduce strain, but more importantly to reduce the risk of behavioral disorders,” Walsh says. “Creative, interactive outside play away from digital media remains the most useful recommendation to parents to avoid these complications.”