Step Away from the Joystick

Are your kids getting too much "screen time"?

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

We all know video games, computers and too much television aren’t good for kids, but did you know that more than a few hours a day spent alone in front of a glowing screen could cause everything from psychological problems to Vitamin D deficiency?

A recent study (set to appear in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics) of more than 1,000 children between the ages of ten and 11 concludes that limiting children’s so-called "screen time" may be crucial to kids’ overall well-being. The study measured the amount of time kids spent in front of a screen and their physical-activity levels, and looked at their psychological statuses.

The results were alarming if not surprising.

The study showed that any more than two hours per day of both television viewing and computer use were linked to psychological difficulties – regardless of how much time the children spent on physical activity.

“Low levels of screen viewing may not be problematic, (but) we cannot rely on physical activity to 'compensate' for long hours of screen viewing,” said lead author Dr. Angie Page of the University of Bristol's Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences.

The children in the study who spent more time sedentary fared better in their psychological scores overall. The children who did more moderate physical activity rated better in terms of emotional and peer problems but were shown to be more prone to hyperactivity.

Updating Facebook statuses and engaging in other online time-consumers, watching TV and playing video games for extended periods also puts kids at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. That may not sound like such a big deal, but a recent study also appearing in Pediatrics confirms that as many as seven out of ten children in the U.S. have low levels of Vitamin D, putting them at risk for high blood pressure and other heart disease-related conditions.

In fact Vitamin D is so important that low levels of the nutrient may increase risk of death from all causes, according to a study published in the August 2008 edition of Archives of Internal Medicine.

If that weren’t enough to pull your kid up from his or her favorite video game or latest episode of “Glee,” too much screen time can also contribute to social isolation, which can provoke lash-outs, according to new research from the Netherlands.  Alienated kids may be more likely to lash out – sometimes in dangerous ways – in response to acute peer rejection that can be intensified by technology like the Internet, TV and video games.

“(The study) was inspired by the fact that we had these school shootings and wondered what the most important feature of these kids could be," said Albert Reijntjes of Utrecht University, who cowrote the study with five other psychological scientists. “In discussing it with colleagues, the alienation concept came up; maybe there is something to alienation that increases aggression.”

There may be a bright side to too much screen time if it includes video games, however.

According to a report in this month’s issue of the Elsevier’s Cortex journal, a reorganization of the brain's cortical network in young men with lots of video gaming experience gives them an advantage in performing other tasks requiring visuomotor skills – such as, oh say, laparoscopic surgery.

It seems the risks of too much screen time (social rejection, psychological problems, vitamin deficiency) outweigh the possible benefit that your son or daughter might actually be fine-tuning their surgery skills, though.  So talk to your kids about setting aside the remote, the joystick or the laptop and getting away from the screen for a little while. 

Review Date: 
October 12, 2010