Beyond the screen

screen timeWe’ve all been made aware of the physical effects that too much time in front of the television or on the internet can have on children. But with iPods, tablets, smart phones and other screen-based technologies now on the market, what are the mental health effects of prolonged use on children?

A team of researchers led by Professor Steve Houghton, director of The University of Western Australia’s centre for child and adolescent-related disorders, set out to find the answers. Maria D’Agostino speaks with Steve about starting his ground-breaking research.

Children and teenagers live in a media saturated world and spend more time using various media technologies than they do time at school*.

This startling statistic had Professor Steve Houghton reflecting on the mental health impacts that long term use of screen based technologies can have on young people now and in the future.

“While there has been a great deal of research looking at how this behaviour relates to children’s physical health, much less attention has been paid to the impact on their mental health,” he says.

“Given the pervasiveness of these technologies in young people’s lives, understanding the links between use and mental health, and developing evidence-based guidelines for use, are crucial.”

Steve says previous studies have looked at the physical effects of watching too much television or spending too much time on the internet. But this will be the first look into the mental health effects on young people from using all screen-based technologies.

“I read something about children who are anxious and how using various screen-based technologies over an extended period of time can exacerbate their anxiety. I immediately wanted to examine this further,” says Steve. With help from his team and a professor travelling from Glasgow, Steve’s study will initially examine the frequency, intensity and types of screen-based activity, and how this varies for different ages, genders and geographical locations. “Parents and schools find it hard to gauge when a child’s screen use is becoming a problem,” he says.

“We’re not saying all screen use is bad because there are many positive things about modern technology. But for some young people it becomes their reality and they can spend so much time on screen that it can impact on their health and wellbeing.”

Schools in both metropolitan and country areas have already signed up to take part in the study which will involve online surveys over three years. Steve says the only way to measure mental health effects will be longitudinally but, because of the study’s innovative design, the three years of data will be able to model a 10-year growth curve.

Students will be questioned about whether, for example, their screen use interferes with sleep, eating and school work; whether their parents complain about their screen use; and whether their communication with others is more successful online than face-to-face.

“The survey has been tested on 40 students and these situations come up quite often,” explains Steve.

“A lot of students find it hard not to use screen-based technologies all the time. But it’s not an addiction as many people think it is. Rather, it’s problematic usage.

“We don’t want to say children shouldn’t be using screens. Rather, from the study results, we want to be able to advise schools, parents and young people on the most effective ways to use screen-based technologies and at the same time develop positive mental health.”

Steve and researchers will also develop a problematic screen-use scale. “We’ve already had a fantastic response from schools to the study, as many teachers and parents recognise that screen use has changed the nature of childhood and adolescence in many ways,” he says.

Steve says 50 per cent of all adult mental health problems develop during adolescence and screen use can exacerbate the problems. Finding out how to use screens effectively without developing problems is vitally important.

“Research shows 18 to 24-month old toddlers regularly watch screen media for at least one-and-a-half hours a day and that early screen viewing – before three years old – has been linked to a number of psychological health issues in adolescence. It’s incredible,” he says.

“I remember when I was at an airport and about 150 students had just come off a flight. Ninety-five per cent of them were on gadgets and not talking with each other.
“Then when I was on the plane, people were making last minute calls or listening to music and switching on tablets to watch something.

I’m always amazed at the amount of time people spend using screens so I’m really excited to fnd out more from this study.

Key Findings

•    Three to 13 year olds watch television daily for more than 1.5 hours, and the average Australian child first goes online before eight years of age.

•    47 per cent of the top 100 selling Apple applications in 2009 were targeted at pre-school and primary school children.

•    100 new educational applications are released each day, many for babies.

•    More than 90 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds in the USA, Europe and Australia have access to television and go online, and 94 per cent have mobile phones, of which 90 per cent use them to play games.

•    Young people on average spend between four and seven hours a day using various media. This is well over the less than two hours recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics, Canadian Paediatric Society and Australia’s Physical Activity Recommendations for 12 to 18 years olds.

•    Two studies in Australia have found that 58.9 per cent and 75 per cent of Australian children respectively, exceed recommended screen use time. These recommendations were made for physical health outcomes, rather than mental health outcomes. Limited research examining mental health and screen use means that similar recommendations have not been forthcoming.

Article courtesy of School Matters, Department of Education, Western Australia

*Coyne, S., Padilla-Walker, L., Stockdale, L., & Day, R. (2011). Game on… Girls: Associations between co-playing video games and adolescent behavioural and family outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Health, 49, 160-165.

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