Screen time putting wellbeing of preschoolers at risk

When young children clamour to watch another episode or seven of their favourite TV shows, frazzled parents often find themselves caving in to their offspring's requests.

But a new Australian-led study has found that increased electronic media use — including smartphones, tablets and computer games — can lead to poorer psychological health in preschool children.

There can be as much as a two-fold increase in adverse wellbeing outcomes for each additional hour of television or computer use, researchers concluded.

There can be as much as a two-fold increase in adverse wellbeing outcomes for each additional hour of television or computer use, researchers concluded.

While the link between children's sedentary time spent on the couch and poor physical health has been well established, looking at psychological and social wellbeing is a new research area, said study co-author and National Health and Medical Research Council council early career fellow Dr Trina Hinkley.

"For a long time we thought that kids this age couldn't sit still enough to watch enough TV to be a problem," said Dr Hinkley.

"But now we're seeing they are sitting more and engaging with new media and so we are looking at detrimental effects because of these behaviours."

Researchers found scores on a measure of poor psychological and social health could as much as double with each additional hour of television or computer use.

One hypothesis is that watching too much television reduces the opportunity for young children to engage socially and learn to manage their emotions through play.

Very fast-paced cartoons, aggressive or violent shows may be more detrimental than educational shows, but the bulk of evidence suggests it is the total volume, not just content alone that matters, Dr Hinkley said.

The study found that young children with higher levels of television viewing were also at increased risk for poor family functioning.

Poor well-being during early childhood is associated with later depression and hostile and aggressive behaviour.

The study, published on Tuesday in the journal JAMA Paediatrics, [Journal of the American Medical Association] also found watching television was more consistently associated with poorer outcomes than electronic game or computer use.

The Australian Department of Health recommends that children under two should have no screen time and those between two and five who are not yet at school should have less than one hour each day.

The mean age of the children in the JAMA study sample was between four and six.

It analysed data from a European Study of 31,500 children that investigated the causes of dietary and lifestyle-induced diseases and disorders.

Dr Hinkley said the data was similar to that of Australian children.

Another study in the same journal looked at the effect of parental monitoring on the weight of their children found mothers who monitored the time that their children spend watching TV and playing video games have slimmer children than those who do not.

But this did not hold true for fathers.


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