Too much screen time creates health risk for children

The members of Clarke family sit in different rooms of their home, each in front of their own personal screens doing everything from checking Facebook to playing a video game to watching TV.

Health concerns include eye problems and sleep loss

Spencer Clarke, 15, plays video games in his bedroom. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)

Members of the Clarke family sit in different rooms of their home, each in front of their own personal screens doing everything from checking Facebook to playing a video game to watching TV. 

It's rare the family of five sits around one TV to watch a show or movie together like families have for the past few decades. Today, in many cases, picking up a phone to make a call, reading the news or a book, you're now looking at a screen. 

Mason Clarke on their mobile phones. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)
"I think it's a sign of the times, that everything is on a screen nowadays," mother, Cheryl Clarke, said in the family room of their Rosetown, Saskatchewan home. 

In his bedroom, Spencer, 15, was playing video games. He spends up to six-hours per day in front of a screen. 

"It's entertaining," he said. "If you're angry about something it's pretty stress relieving." 

Across the hall, his twin sister, Mason, is clocking in her hours in front of a screen until bedtime, texting and checking her Facebook and Instagram accounts. 

She's not sure what's appealing about it. 

Jayden Clarke, 11, spends watches TV while using her iPhone. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)
"Maybe if I'm bored, something to do or catch up on stuff," she said. 

Her sister, Jayden, 11, spends much of her time in the family room on her iPhone while watching TV. 

"I don't usually see my friends much, so I just talk to them and stuff, and I get bored sometimes," she said. 

The Clarke kids's screen time is quite typical. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, children aged 10-16 years old are getting on average just over six-and-a-half hours of screen time per day. The recommended limit is no more than two hours. For kids under aged two, no screen time at all. 

Potential health problems

Studies suggest that too much screen time can have health consequences, such as poor eating habits, behavioural problems, impaired academic performance and sleep loss.

Dr. Dorothy Barrie has been looking into people's eyes for 25 years and she's concerned about what she's seeing lately among children. 

Dr. Dorothy Barrie said she's seeing more and more cases of digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)
"More and more [kids] are on the computer, they're on their cell phone or iPod," the optometrist said. "More and more we're seeing what's being called digital eye strain or computer vision syndrome." 

All that focusing up close is difficult and tiring to the eyes, she said, causing dryness and headaches and leading to more nearsightedness. 

Spencer said he can tell when he's been playing video games for too long. 

"If there's lot of flashes and stuff, sometimes it'll not be epileptic, but it'll hurt your head like a headache if the game is really bright and loud," he said. 

Now, there's research suggesting exposure to all that bright, blue light may be linked to cataracts and macular degeneration.

Barrie said there are things you can do to combat vision problems. Every 20 minutes, you should take a break and look about six-meters away for about 20 seconds to relax your eyes from focusing up close. 

Screen time restrictions

Rules around how much time kids can spend focused on screens make a big difference in homes, said Cathy Wing, co-executive director of MediaSmarts, a Canadian centre for digital and media literacy. 

"You can work out rules, that homework has to be done before there's any media use," she said. "Media should not be in children's bedrooms because we want to be able to control it, certainly when they're younger."

Murray and Cheryl Clarke on their mobile phones. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)
She said that if you work out those rules with your kids when they're young, they're more likely to accept limits. She also said parents need to set a good example. 

"Our kids look to use for their media use habits," she said. "So are parents over using media? Are they bringing the iPhone to the table? Are they constantly on the iPad? " 

It's about finding a balance, she said, knowing when to unplug and perhaps preventing some serious health problems. 

The Clarkes said they have tried to impose screen time limits but they didn't last long. 

"You kinda get lax when you get busy and you lose track of time," Cheryl said. 

Positive effects

But the Clarkes say there are some benefits. War games have helped Spencer become interested in history, they say. The parents can also keep on eye on their kids. 

"If they're home on a video game or in front of a tablet or a computer, they're FaceTiming or Facebooking or Instagramming, at least you know where they are," father, Murray, said. 

So despite the whole family being over the recommended limit, the Clarke's said they've come to accept that screen time is — and will stay — a big part of their lives. 

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