Parents are being warned of the health dangers posed to children who spend too much time in front of electronic screens, after a government study found that toddlers began using tablet computers at an average age of 16 months.
The early exposure to such gadgets was worrying, but so was the unhealthy amount of time older children were spending in front of the screens, Dr Thomas Chung Wai-hung, a Department of Health consultant, said.
Well over a third of the primary and secondary school pupils interviewed had given up outdoor activities altogether in favour of staying indoors with their devices, the study found.
Children below two years of age should not be allowed to interact with electronic screens, as they might become addicted easily, Chung and his researchers said. "Parents and their children may not be aware that using the internet and electronic-screen products for long hours can affect the physical and psychological health of the user," Chung, a community medicine consultant for student health services, said yesterday.
Chung was the department's representative in a government advisory group that ran the survey on more than 4,300 parents, pupils and teachers in January.
One in five pupils spent more than three hours a day in front of electronic screens, the researchers said in their report on the health effects of the use of the internet and electronic-screen products.
Half of them said they had lost sleep from using computers and other related devices, while 45 per cent admitted their academic performance had suffered.
The youngest infant exposed to such screens was only a month old; on average, children started using tablets and personal computers at 16 months and 24 months, respectively.
Exposure to television began at an even younger age, of just eight months.
Dr Ronnie Pao Sze-yuan, of the College of Psychiatrists, said web addiction could interfere with cognitive learning, which would in turn affect the child's social development.
Chung said strong evidence also suggested a link between obesity and spending a lot of time in front of screens.
Problems with vision and musculoskeletal development were also possible, according to an ophthalmologist and an orthopaedist on the research team.