An iPad or smartphone would seem perfect to keep children quiet in a restaurant. Just hand them one and instantly there will be an eerie quiet as they play games, giving parents and other diners a chance to enjoy their meals in peace. But as effective as such handheld devices are in keeping youngsters from misbehaving in public or at home, the physical and neurological effects of too much screen time remain little understood. Until the implications are better known, setting time limits and encouraging conversation and outdoor activities makes sense.
Studies of children who spend their days hunched over handheld devices or staring at computer and television screens have reached worrying conclusions. Dutch researchers have coined the term "gameboy back" to describe the trend of spinal curvature they are increasingly noticing among children aged eight to 18. Short-sightedness has also risen alarmingly in Asia, where it has reached near epidemic proportions among the young. Long-term research in Britain involving 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 has so far determined that those who have spent three hours a day in front of a screen had a higher chance of misconduct and emotional and relationship problems by the age of seven than those who did not.
Such studies are by no means conclusive, though. There is a high degree of variance among the responses of children, just as there is with adults. Some can be more sensitive than others when it comes to screen time. Considerably more research needs to be done before definitive positions can be taken.
While handheld devices and excessive screen time can be pointed to as the reason for back pain or a stiff neck, it is less easy to pinpoint it as the cause of poor interpersonal skills or myopia. In Taiwan, where near-sightedness among 15-year-olds has soared to 81 per cent, research has not isolated too much screen-watching, reading or intake of particular food or drink as being the culprit. Instead, the suspicion is that excessive time spent indoors is to blame, with a lack of natural light being suspected as being the cause.
Final assessments will take time, but there is no need to await results before acting. Children, like adults, have to have balance in their lives. There is a time for play, exercise and work and it is up to parents to set the limits. We need to think twice before handing our sons and daughters an iPad or smartphone to keep them out of our hair.