Increase in screen time putting kids' health at risk: WHO study

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning about the dramatic upsurge in the use of devices among children in its latest comprehensive report about adolescent health in Europe.

The report notes that 60 per cent of an 11 to 13-year-olds' day is now spent on sedentary activities and that the ramifications for their health are concerning.

Screen time for kids in the UK has increased for both boys and girls since 2000 and tripled for girls aged 15 or over. This correlates with a dramatic reduction in the amount of physical activity that kids are undertaking and kids as young as 11 are now at risk of a host of illnesses, obesity and premature death.

Approximately 200,000 school children were surveyed by the WHO in 42 countries and revealed that across 2014, in England 74.6 per cent of girls and 76.5 per cent of boys aged 11 to 15 used a device of some kind for more than two hours each week day. In Scotland, the figures increase to 83.6 per cent for boys and 79.9 per cent for girls. 

Dr Jo Inchley, lead researcher from the University of St Andrews, says that social media is the main cause of the increase in screen time. "We know that a positive impact of social media is social connectedness and the sense of interaction. But we also know there are risks, such as cyberbullying and impact on mental health, as well as things like missing out on sleep," she told the Press Association.

It's not just the short term Dr Inchley is worried about. "Also, there are longer-term impacts on physical health from being sedentary. One of the main challenges for us is that this kind of activity (social media and computer use) is so much part of young people's lives these days, how do we manage this and the health risks associated with it? It's about reducing time being spent sedentary, and ensuring that children still have opportunity to be active. We really need to start addressing these challenges now," she urged.

With kids increasingly relying on being driven to school and other activities, and fears around children playing out in the street as they did in previous eras, opportunities for activity are being lost. Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum in the UK, said the report reinforced what parents already know: that their kids "are now slaves to handheld devices."

The report identifies the ages of 11 to 13 as the danger period of ditching exercise for devices and that, "current global recommendations state that young people aged 5 -17 years should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity every day, and include vigorous-intensity activities at least three times a week."