Health Risks of Digital Screen Use by Children

 

by Ben Allred, Jarrod Barben, Michelle Galison, CEL University of Utah 2016

Today in both our state and our country, we rely on digital technology more than ever before. Television is nearly ubiquitous, but computer use is growing quickly, and with it the number of people, especially children, using digital screens is also increasing. In 1984, 15% of children had access to a computer at home. In contrast, according to the most recent figures from the United States Census Bureau, over 80% of households in the U.S. Now contain some type of computer (File & Ryan, 2014). This percentage is highest in our very own Utah, where just fewer than 95% of individuals have access to at least one computer in their household (File & Ryan, 2014). While these technologies have various uses, from entertainment to education, they also bring questions regarding proper usage and boundaries for our children.

Children spend several hours a day using some form of digital screen (Reid Chassiakos et al., 2016). Just what sort of impact can such usage have on children? With such a high degree of usage, health concerns arise. Among these concerns are visual and psychological issues, with our children being the most at-risk. This article discusses these concerns and offers some strategies that the experts recommend to keep you and your children protected from these potential harms.

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Visual Health

The effects of screen usage on a person’s eyes depend on a number of factors. The most important factor is how long the person views the screen. Focusing on a screen for an extended period of time with no breaks can cause fatigue and several other problems, both short-term and long-term.

Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). CVS is a condition that describes the various visual effects of screen use. In addition to excessive screen use, CVS is caused by factors such as incorrect seating position, glare on the screen, poor lighting, and viewing from too close or too far away. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), the symptoms of CVS include headaches, blurred vision, neck and eye pain, and dry eyes.

Children are at a higher risk for developing CVS because they tend not to have a healthy amount of inhibition that comes with growing up (Kozeis, 2009). This makes them more likely to not practice safe viewing behaviors such as blinking regularly and taking breaks between uses.

Myopia. Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, is a condition in which things cannot be seen clearly at far away distances. According to the AOA, myopia affects about 30% of everyone in the US, and that figure is predicted to continue growing. It has been shown that people who work or frequently engage in activities that require looking at something close up for long periods of time are at more of a risk of developing this condition. One such activity is screen time, especially computer use. Some people have even reported experiencing what is called pseudo myopia from staring at a computer screen for too long (AOA, 2016). Someone experiencing pseudo myopia will have all the effects of myopia, but for a short amount of time. The only way to correct permanent myopia is with glasses, contacts, or eye surgery.

Blue Light. On the visible light spectrum there is one color in particular that could potentially lead to long-term eye damage: blue light. Blue light has a very short wavelength and produces a lot of energy, which is the reason it affects our eyes differently than other colors. According to a 2012 health letter from the Harvard Medical School titled “Blue Light Has a Dark Side,” blue light is actually useful to us when we get it naturally, through the sun’s rays. Looking at it stimulates our brains in a way that makes us feel more awake. This is an evolutionary trait that helps our bodies regulate our natural sleep and wake cycle.

However, unnatural exposure to blue light, typically from digital screen usage during the nighttime hours, can cause several health issues. The above health letter from Harvard notes that, because blue light stimulates the brain in a manner similar to how the sun does, it is recommended not to look at a digital screen before bed as this can alter the sleep and wake cycle. The letter claims that, if this cycle is altered through nighttime exposure to blue light, “…study after study has linked working the night shift and exposure to light at night to several types of cancer (breast, prostate), diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.”

Another negative side effect of blue light is its potential to cause long term eye damage. A study done in Switzerland found that when rats look at a blue light source for too long they start to develop lesions on their retinas (Grimm, 2001). Though it is not yet clear whether blue light is similarly damaging to human eyes, there remains room for concern. Moreover, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, there is a link between blue light exposure and developing cataracts or macular degeneration, a condition in which the retina slowly degenerates, eventually causing permanent loss of vision. Therefore, while more research is needed to strongly correlate blue light exposure and retina damage, it is nonetheless advisable to understand the potential health risks.

Psychological Impact

Not only can digital screen use cause visual problems, but it can also lead to psychological issues. One major concern is the addictive potential of activities such as video games, social media, and texting. Of these three, video games are of particular concern for children. Studies have shown that video game addiction functions similarly to drug addiction. Playing a video game can increase the brain’s dopamine production, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, acting as a natural reward system (Koepp et al, 1998). Cocaine is sometimes compared to video games because it too increases dopamine. While it is unlikely that video games present the same severity as cocaine use, they are still addictive and can have a negative impact on psychological functions. Studies have shown that excessive video game and social media use can increase the chance of someone developing a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, and in some cases aggressive behavior (Andreassen et al., 2016).

Another consequence of being addicted to video games or social media is diminished performance in areas like school, athletics, and extracurricular activities. There have been many cases in which children have been involved in sports, but after taking up video games will start to lose interest. This can be traced back to the addictive potential of video games. What often happens is children will find video games more pleasurable than other activities, and because their minds haven’t fully developed to make responsible choices they will put all of their focus into the new, exciting game, and gravitate away from their other hobbies (Kardaras, 2016).

The addictive potential of digital media is damaging on its own, but it also plays a role in eye health. The likelihood of developing CVS and other problems associated with looking at a screen is increased when screen time is increased. This means that being addicted to digital media not only imposes psychological and behavior problems, but also increases the chances of developing the other health issues discussed.

Health Tips

General Practices. Below are some suggestions that should be kept in mind with both children and adults.

Be in a comfortable position when using a computer or any digital screen. Make sure to sit up straight with a flat back and forearms resting comfortably on the desk.Keep the screen away from the face and view at a slight downward angle. A computer may need to be adjusted when a child is using it.Minimize other light sources while using. This is to avoid glare on the computer screen, which can cause extra strain on the eyes.Blink often. Staring at any light source can cause eyes to dry up faster, and actually inhibit the urge to blink. If dry eyes are a particular problem, it is encouraged to use eye drops periodically during screen use.Observe the 20-20-20 rule. This states that for every 20 minutes of use, give your eyes a break by looking at something approximately 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Remembering to take breaks often will put a lot less strain on the eyes (Computer Vision Syndrome).

The second area that needs to be addressed applies primarily to video games or any other form of addictive screen use. As mentioned before, the addictiveness of video games can cause both psychological and physiological problems. Because of this, it is advisable to keep these tips in mind:

Establish clear rules when it comes to video game use. Time limits should be enforced as well as conditions such as only being able to play after all homework has been completed and other goals pursued.Keep an eye on your child’s gaming habits.Look for symptoms mentioned above such as those of CVS or social withdrawal.Encourage them to take breaks and to engage in other activities such as playing outside or reading a book.It would also help to explain to your child the importance of developing good habits, and that too much digital stimulation could lead to health problems.

It is also important to take into consideration how old your child is before exposing them to a digital screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (2016) has issued a policy stating which ages are appropriate for how much exposure. According to this statement, children under 18 months should avoid exposure to digital screens at all costs. Children under 2 can be shown high quality educational media with a parent’s supervision. Children 2 to 6 can be exposed to high quality educational material, but should be limited to one hour a day. After age 6 it is recommended to enforce consistent time limits, and to encourage other activities to have a balanced lifestyle.

Conclusion

Technology affords numerous benefits to society, parents, and children. However, it is recommended that usage be monitored in order to avoid the symptoms and health issues discussed in this article. By limiting usage and using healthy viewing practices, all users can enjoy the benefits of technology with reduced risk of experiencing negative effects.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016). American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children's media use. Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

American Macular Degeneration Foundation. (n.d.). Ultra-violet and blue light aggravate macular degeneration. Retrieved from https://www.macular.org/ultra-violet-and-blue-light

American Optometric Association. (n.d.). Computer vision syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/caring-for-your-vision/protecting-your-vision/computer-vision-syndrome?sso=y

American Optometric Association. (n.d.). Myopia (nearsightedness). Retrieved from http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/eye-and-vision-problems/glossary-of-eye-and-vision-conditions/myopia?sso=y

Andreassen, C. S., Billieux, J., Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D. J., Demetrovics, Z., Mazzoni, E., & Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between addictive use of social media and video games and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. Psychology Of Addictive Behaviors, 30(2), 252-262. doi:10.1037/adb0000160

Harvard Medical School. (2012). Blue light has a dark side. Retrieved November 23, 2016, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

File, T & Ryan, C. (2014). Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.pdf.

Grimm, C., Wenzel, A., Williams, T., Rol, P., Hafezi, F., & Remé, C. (2001). Rhodopsin-mediated blue-light damage to the rat retina: effect of photoreversal of bleaching. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, 42(2), 497-505.

Kardaras, N. (2016). It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies. Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2016/08/27/its-digital-heroin-how-screens-turn-kids-into-psychotic-junkies/

Koepp, M., Gunn, R., Lawrence, A. D., Cunningham, V. J., Dagher, A., Jones, T., & ... Grasby, P. M. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393(6682), 266.

Kozeis, N. (2009). Impact of computer use on children’s vision. Hippokratia, 13(4), 230–231.

Reid Chassiakos, Y., Radesky, J., Christakis, D., Moreno, M. A., Cross, C. & Council on Communications and Media. Children and adolescents and digital media. Pediatrics, 138(5), doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2593.

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