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Littlest Couch Potatoes Face Mental Health Risks

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Young children who spend lots of time in front of television and computer screens have high levels of psychological distress and being physically inactive may make matters worse according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics includes a group as young as four-years-old. Previous studies of “screen time” have been in adolescents and teens said the lead researcher of the current investigation, Dr. Mark Hamer of University College London.

“We replicated the earlier findings in older adolescents that show too much TV and screen-based entertainment is associated with poorer measures of mental health,” said Hamer.

To make their determinations, Hamer and his team looked at 1,486 boys and girls ages four to 12 years old. The children’s parents completed a test called the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire that assesses childhood mental health issues, such as hyperactivity, emotional symptoms, conduct problems and peer problems.

About one in four children logged at least three hours of screen time daily, while 4.2 percent had abnormally high scores on the questionnaire, indicating high levels of psychological distress. Children with more than 2.7 hours of screen time daily had 24 percent higher scores on the test, signaling more distress, than kids who had less than 1.6 hours of daily screen time. Heavy television and computer use plus low physical activity further increased distress scores by 46 percent.

Children started to show worse mental health at the highest screen time level, which was around three hours per day, Hamer noted. The current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that parents limit their child’s screen-based entertainment time to less than two hours per day. Current guidelines also advise that children spend at least one hour in active play daily.

“I think it’s really a question of sort of limiting screen-based activity and just trying to encourage more physical activity,” Hamer said. “That’s the key message.”

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