If your child is spending increasing amounts of time gaming on their X-box or messaging on Facebook and/or texting on their smartphone – you may be worried about the effects on their health. Mike Fisher, director of the British Association of Anger Management, offers some ground rules…
Thirty years ago kids were mainly found outdoors playing football or riding their bikes – but these days they’re more likely to spend their spare time indoors in front of a screen.
A survey led by the University of Cambridge, sponsored by BT, found one in three people have felt overwhelmed by communications technology to the point they feel they need to escape it. Worryingly, the figure was 38 per cent for 10 to 18 year olds.
Around 36 per cent of those polled found that technology sometimes disrupted family life and three out of five people said they thought the family could benefit from having technology-free time when devices should be switched off.
Clearly kids have never spent so much time sitting down indoors – but what effect is all this having on their health?
Health risk of indoor lifestyles
Vitamin D deficiency
Believe it or not rickets – the bone disease common in children in Dickensian times – is now on the increase in the UK again. According to a recent survey by Kellogg’s, 82 per cent of paediatric dieticians have seen a rise in cases in the past five years. Cases of children under 10 with rickets leapt by 140 per cent between 2001 and 2009, increasing from 184 to 471. Experts have blamed the increasing incidence on the indoor lifestyle of today’s kids. Read how vitamin D is essential in boosting bone power.
Being too sedentary leads to kids piling on the pounds. NHS figures published in December 2011 revealed almost one in five (19 per cent) of children are now obese by the last year of primary school, up from 17.5 per cent in 2006/7. One third of children are overweight or obese by the same age. Experts in The Lancet say this is a worrying trend because 82 per cent of obese children go on to become obese adults and they are also at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Watch our video on health and nutrition for children and read our tips for encouraging kids to exercise.
Playing on games consoles or laptops late at night may overstimulate the brain and lead to sleep problems, according to a survey by the BBC children’s TV programme Newsround. The survey found that half of the 1,000 9 to 11 year old children wanted more sleep. About half the children in the survey admitted they were staying up to play computer games or watch television on their mobile phones.
Behaviour and concentration problems
Sleep problems can affect concentration at school and have also been linked with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), according to a study published in Paediatrics Journal.
Teenage “Night Owl” syndrome
Researchers at the Lighting Research Center in New York found that insufficient daily morning light exposure contributes to teenagers not getting enough sleep. Researchers said teenagers who spend too much time indoors miss out on essential morning light needed to stimulate the body’s 24 hour biological clock, so they go to bed later, getting less sleep and possibly underperform in tests.
Read our guide to getting a good night's sleep.
Bringing back old-fashioned play
So how can you tempt a child who is welded to their PC or TV remote into the wonderful world of hobbies?
Behavioural expert Judi James says: “We all know that balancing play is a bit like balancing a healthy diet for maximum nutrition, meaning physical and social activity or making and creating things.
“Make sure you sell the ‘fun’ aspect and overall advantages of any new play to yourself first. Kids pick up on non-verbal cues from their parents so will see if you’re only pretending something will be ‘really good fun’.
“Try to tune into your child’s natural motivational factors so they will spot some benefit in the new type of play. Are they extrovert and sociable, do they prefer quiet reflective challenges, is winning and competition a motivator or do they prefer to be seen as ‘cool’?
“Remember the power of peer group pressure from your own childhood. Cello lessons might sound like a good idea to you but will lugging that case around help integrate or isolate them from their own group?”
Getting the balance right
Computer games, social networking and messaging aren’t inherently bad for children and teens, and actually have some benefits; social networking can make you feel more connected to friends and family, and interactive computer games can sharpen response − it’s all about how much they are used and where.
Mike Fisher has the following tips for healthy use of technology in the home.
Vet any games
“Avoid letting your child play a game that involves virtual violence and follow the age recommendations on the cover,” advises Mike.
“Specify how much time they can play on their games – make sure they have regular breaks and do their homework / eat a meal / do their chores first. If they are usually missing at mealtimes or not doing their homework, they may have an addiction problem. To do this you may have to insist that they use their computer or console in a communal area, so you can check they are doing what’s been agreed.”
Practice what you preach
“You can‘t lecture them about the amount of time they are spending online if you are texting during dinner − make sure you have some family ground rules such as no phones at the table − and all of you stick to them.”
Wean them off technology an hour before bedtime
“Using BlackBerries or playing games late into the night overstimulates the brain and then children can suffer insomnia – so try to get them to switch off an hour before bedtime – and leave their phone downstairs at night.”
Things to avoid
Don't become a pushy parent
Your child can still enjoy singing or dancing without having the X Factor as their ultimate goal.
Avoid micro-managing their activities
Fun tends to occur when there is some spontaneity involved.
Don't just switch everything off or confiscate electronic games
It will make new ventures feel like a punishment.
Don't announce your plans along with a telling-off
When you tell kids what to do, as in "It's about time you peeled yourself off that stupid keyboard and joined in with the real world" etc, they tend to move instantly into a state of rebellious child. Use 'nudging' techniques instead, i.e. slow but steady methods of persuasion.
Find out more about the child health care options available to your family. You can also discover more information in our Pregnancy and Childcare Centre or if you have a specific question, you can ask our experts.
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