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.
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.
“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.”