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Electronic devices risk mental health of kids

By Zhou Wenting in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-18 08:53
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Study finds overexposure damaging to kindergartners, regardless of content

A recent study found that kindergarten children who are exposed to electronic screens for more than an hour a day have a significant increase in mental health risk regardless of the content viewed, and the risk escalates as the duration of screen exposure increases.

According to the study conducted by experts from the Shanghai Children's Medical Center Affiliated with Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine, children watching entertainment and non-child-directed programs have greater mental health risks than those who watch educational programs.

A paper about the research, which involved nearly 16,000 kindergarten children from Shanghai for three consecutive years, was published on the website of the journal JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month.

Children's exposure to TV and other electronic products has become a norm, and it is starting earlier. World Health Organization guidelines recommend that children under 2 years avoid screen exposure, and that children aged between 2 and 5 should spend no more than an hour a day on average in front of screens.

However, previous studies by the research group found that 24 percent of children had screen exposure before reaching 1 year old, and 76 percent of children began regular screen exposure before 2. Among 3-year-olds who have just entered kindergarten, as many as 78.6 percent of them had a daily average screen exposure longer than the guidelines suggested.

Children's excessive screen exposure is a common phenomenon around the world. The research team said that among children between 2 and 5 in Canada and Australia, 85 percent and 74 percent respectively were found in studies to have excessive use of electronic screens.

Jiang Fan, one of the lead researchers in the new study, has long been engaged in studies of the impact of lifestyle on children's health. Based on more than six years of observation and surveys, her previous research found that if there is excessive screen exposure in someone's infancy and early childhood, even if the screen exposure decreases later, it can still have a significant adverse effect on the child's cognitive ability and psychological and behavioral development.

The new study was designed to find whether the associations between excessive screen time and mental health risks differ by the content viewed. Screen exposure time was collected when the children were aged 3, 5 and 6, and their mental health was reported by parents using a standard questionnaire.

The research also discovered that educational video programs and entertainment video programs account for the majority of the content that children in this age bracket watch. With a rise in their social skills and needs, children's social media use will increase as they grow.

However, experts pointed out that excessive use of social media can impair children's interactions and communication with those around them in real life. Previous studies suggested that children who overuse electronic devices often lack social skills and empathy, making it difficult to build stable and healthy relationships.

"Like the ability to learn and use new technologies, a child's sociability will be a very important ability for him or her in the future. Sociability builds the relationships that he or she has with people, which is a source of happiness," said Yu Suisui, principal of Huili School Nantong, a bilingual school in Nantong, Jiangsu province.

The research team is working on using magnetic resonance imaging to explore the effects of increased early screen exposure on children's brain structure and related development of brain function.

Experts reminded parents and guardians that children under 2 should only use electronic devices to conduct video calls when necessary. They also suggested that for children between 2 and 5, parents should accompany and communicate with them when they are in front of screens.

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