CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an undeniable surge in screen time and digital device use among children and adolescents all over the world, according to researchers from Anglia Ruskin University. With this in mind, study authors are asking another important question: Will this major increase in screen time lead to any long-term health repercussions for tomorrow’s adults?
Researchers are concerned that this uptick in digital device usage on a global scale among kids may soon start affecting children’s eyesight and health in general. Previous studies show a number of conditions and ailments have a connection to increased screen time.
Putting entertainment aside for a moment, COVID-19 forced schools all over the world to transition to remote learning. Students have been using computers and tablets to learn their lessons for two years now, which means much more time online every day.
Screen time is rising all over the world
The research team analyzed various smaller studies conducted all over the world documenting these increases in adolescent screen time. One Canadian study reports 89 percent of parents admit their kids spend much more time staring at screens than the two-hour daily guideline set by the Canadian health authorities.
Another study, this one conducted in Chile, found screen time among toddlers and pre-school children had nearly doubled to over three hours daily. Meanwhile, Tunisian scientists report an astounding 111 percent increase in total screen time among local children between the ages of five and 12.
“It is really important to be aware of the potential risks to children’s short and long-term eye and general health. It is essential that devices are used appropriately and that activities away from digital devices are encouraged, such as playing outdoors,” says lead study author Professor Shahina Pardhan, Director of the Vision and Eye Research Unit at ARU, in a university release.
“Schools can make sure time spent on digital devices is maximized for learning and less digital time is encouraged for other activities. Governments should work with schools to help shape home-based learning guidelines that encourage creative learning away from devices, including promoting other types of activities and frequent screen breaks,” she continues.
Screens leading to ‘binocular vision’
More specific eye issues linked to increased screen time include unstable “binocular vision” (the capacity to use both eyes adequately to create one visual image), uncorrected refractive error, dry eyes, and eye strain.
The collected data also indicates that it is troublingly common for kids to use multiple digital devices at once. For example, scrolling through social media on a smartphone while simultaneously watching Netflix or YouTube on another device. Results reveal that this type of “device switching” has a link to a 22 percent increase in eye strain due to all the constant necessary ocular adjustments.
Sedentary behavior could affect health as well
Besides eye issues, more screen time can also cause neck and shoulder problems and increase time spent sedentary in general. Additionally, screen time shows a connection to an increased risk of overeating and obesity.
“We have been very fortunate that children have been able to use technology to fill in for the absence of in person teaching during the pandemic. However, we must be aware of the risks to their physical health as a result of this increased screen time,” explains study co-author Dr. Robin Driscoll.
“Through increasing awareness of the risks associated with high levels of digital screen use and sharing strategies to reduce the negative effects, teachers and parents should be encouraged to enhance the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents in the pandemic and beyond,” Dr. Driscoll concludes.
The findings appear in the Journal of School Health.