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A virtual obsession

Judith Woods (via The Telegraph and SMH) | April 26, 2013
So news that ''iPad addiction'' has been identified among children aged as young as four struck an uncomfortable chord with me. Obviously, some children find themselves more deeply hooked than others, but surely talk of ''addiction'' is just the medicalisation of what is simply a symptom of slack parenting?

A survey last week found that more than half of parents allowed their babies to play with their phone or tablet device.

One in seven of more than 1000 parents questioned by website admitted that they let them use the gadgets for four or more hours a day.

By the age of seven, a child born in Britain today will have spent an entire year (8766 hours) of their lives looking at TV, computer and game console screens. By 13, it will be three whole years.

A string of published studies suggests links between prolonged screen time - ergo extended inactivity - and serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

''There are physical and physiological effects from misuse of screens,'' leading psychologist Dr Aric Sigman says. ''Apart from the fact that too much screen time means kids are sedentary, tests have shown that being online raises blood pressure.

''There is also an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which is a component of the brain's reward system.''

Dopamine is produced in response to novelty and is also a motivational chemical that encourages an individual to repeat actions, hence it is implicated in addictive behaviour and in poor attention spans.

''It's easy but too simplistic to blame parents if their children overuse screens,'' Sigman says. ''There's a misapprehension that as long as an activity is 'educational', it's fine. But using a screen comes into the category of 'consumption', and whether it is chocolate or broccoli or Facebook, adults need to control kids' consumption.''

Baroness Greenfield, the eminent neuroscientist, has already called for studies to be made into the impact of repeated use of computer games and social network sites on the development of children's brains.

''The environment of children has been changed in an unprecedented way in the past 10 years, and we need to know whether it is affecting them,'' she urges, while emphasising she does not intend to scaremonger. ''The job of scientists like myself is to put their heads out of the lab door and engage with the real world.''

To put their heads out of the lab door, scientists must first, of course, tear themselves away from their computers. It isn't just children who are mesmerised by screens.

Over at the Capio Nightingale Clinic, Graham has some tough words for parents seeking to curb their kids' Instagram habit.

''This issue isn't about reducing our children's access,'' he stresses. ''Adults need to be modelling a healthy balance and stop themselves constantly checking their own devices for emails and texts.''

Wise if unwelcome advice. I'm surely not the only mother who prefers the ''do as I say, not as I do'' school of parenting, as I secretly text under the table.


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