Does childhood television viewing lead to attention problems in adolescence? Results from a prospective longitudinal study.​

Association between child and adolescent television viewing and adult health: a longitudinal birth cohort study.​

In recent years small children have not only had access to traditional screen media like TVs, but also to more advanced screens such as desktop and tablet computers, smartphones and games consoles (1). Numerous studies have shown that an extended exposure to screens during early childhood may be harmful to children’s health: regarding their cognitive development (2)(6), social skills (3,4)(5), mental health (5)(6) and physical well-being (5), including risks of obesity and diabetes, and with negative effects on concentration, sleep, mental development, psychomotor development, speech and language development, etc., as well as on family life (6).

According to a study conducted by the German Media Education Research Association Southwest, 97% of teenagers between 12 and 19 years old own a smartphone. On average, they use their devices three hours and 41 minutes daily, in particular for social media activities (7). 

On average, young adults aged 21 to 30 spend almost seven hours a day online according to a survey by Ernst & Young, about three hours of which they are using their smartphone. According to a study of the DAK health insurance company, 2.6% of children and adolescents in Germany meet the criteria for social media addiction according to the Social Media Disorder Scale. About 3.4% of girls and 1.9% of boys are addicted. If extrapolated for all 12- to 17-year-olds in Germany, this amounts to approximately 100,000 individuals (8).

The correlation between addiction and depression is particularly alarming: The risk of those being dependent on social media to start suffering from depression is 4.6 times higher. Adolescents in particular get more and more dependent on mobile phones. As a consequence, their quality of life rapidly declines: According to a study conducted by San Diego State University, teenagers being online more than five hours of their free time daily are twice as dissatisfied as adolescents who spend less than an hour online (9). 

According to the BLIKK study commissioned by the German Federal Government (BLIKK stands for: coping, learning behaviour, intelligence, competence, communication), babies whose mothers regularly use their smartphone while breastfeeding often develop milk-drinking disorders, problems with falling asleep and even massive reactive attachment disorders (publication under way). Nearly 70% of adolescents report to use their smartphones during the last ten minutes before bedtime. About half of them do not use their smartphone’s Do-Not-Disturb function at night. Adolescents who use smartphones and tablet computers also late in the evening or even take them to bed sleep less well, sleep less in absolute terms and are significantly more tired during the day (10).

There is not yet a well-established body of research on the impact of new screen media (1)(11), and the sources mentioned above are tentative in parts. New studies, however, show that the structure of the brain measurably changes already after six weeks of gaming (12). 

South Korean researchers found that intensive online gaming destabilises the chemical balance of the brain. By means of magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) they discovered that the ratio of important messengers has shifted significantly in the specific region of the prefrontal cortex in case of gamers playing intensely. They identified, among other things, a higher level of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). This neurotransmitter slows down the neurons and thus the brain function, similar to that of patients diagnosed with major depression. Only after prolonged breaks in gaming the test persons’ brain chemistry returned to normal again (13). 

To date, there are hardly any scientific studies available on efficient methods for preventing harm caused by modern media (14).

Although this technology is regarded as the „great equalizer“ (15, 16) that bridges the development gap between wealthier and poorer children, the facts tell a different story: Families of low socio-economic status are more willing to allow their children to use screen media. Children from this background therefore experience more harm by electronic devices in their bedroom than children from wealthier families (17, 18). 

Parents of higher socio-economic status are better placed to decide which media contents serve their children’s development best or are at least less harmful (19).

In contrast, parents of lower socio-economic status tend to employ screen media to keep their children busy instead of spending more time with them, without paying attention to media contents (20). Nowadays, however, everybody should be aware of the fact that non-educational media contents increase the risk of being diagnosed with attention deficit disorder later on (19).

The present Media Fasting 2019 pilot scheme therefore aims at developing an inexpensive, effective media fasting programme and at establishing a practical and scientifically evaluated basis for advancing the idea by providing target groups such as nurseries, schools and pregnant women with suggestions, solutions and much more.

The long-term purpose is to create an increased, behaviour-changing and competent public awareness of how to deal with screen media, in particular in families and child care institutions, by supplying medical information and by enabling them to gain their own experience. – First in Germany, and later on together with international partners.


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