Parents who constantly fiddle with mobile phones or iPads in front of their children are guilty of “benign neglect” and risk driving them to a lifelong dependency on screens, a leading psychologist has warned.
A generation of young people is growing up with a virtual addiction to computers, televisions and smartphones with striking similarities to alcoholism, according to Dr Aric Sigman.
By the time they turn seven, children born today will have spent the equivalent of an entire year of their lives watching some form of small screen, he told an audience of doctors.
The effect could be long-term changes to children’s brain circuitry similar to those in other forms of dependency, he said.
He told the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health annual conference in Glasgow that parents need to “regain control” of their households.
He said: “Passive parenting’ in the face of the new media environment is a form of benign neglect and not in the best interests of children. Parents must regain control of their own households.
Last month a Europe-wide report called for nurseries to ban televisions and called for parents to resist pleas to let children have them in their bedrooms, in a bid to fight obesity among young people.
Dr Sigman, who is both a biologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, drew on research which suggests an association between high levels of screen use and both type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
In a presentation on the parallels between screen dependency and alcoholism, he said that on-screen novelty and stimulation caused the release of dopamine, a chemical which plays an important role in the brain’s “reward” system and may be linked to the formation of addictions.
It is estimated that teenagers now spend up to six hours a day in front of some form of small screen.
Children as young as 10 now have access to as many as five different screens at home, often watching two or more at a time, he said in a presentation to the conference and screen dependency.
But parents’ behaviour can play a key role in determining how children will treat technology, he said.
Boys whose parents watch more than four hours a day of television are more than 10 times more likely to develop the same habit as those whose parents do not, he said.
He also singled out parents who maintain high levels of “eye-to-screen contact” at home warning that they are likely to instill similar behaviour in their children
“Technology should be a tool, not a burden or a health risk,” he said.
“Whether children or adults are formally ‘addicted’ to screen technology or not, many of them overuse technology and have developed an unhealthy dependency on it.
“While there are obviously a variety of different factors which may contribute to the development of a dependency – whether it involves substances or activities – the age, frequency, amount of exposure along with the ease of access and the
effects of role modelling and social learning, all strongly increase the risk.
“All of these contribute to a total daily exposure to, or ‘consumption of’, an activity.
“And all are prerequisite factors that contribute to the risk of dependent overuse of technology.”
He called for children under three to have no screen time at all, and no more than an hour a day outside school for those under seven.
Sue Palmer, author of the book Toxic Childhood, said that screens were altering the way children develop basic communication skills.
“Learning to read people’s faces and expressions and body language is absolutely essential in order to develop empathy,” she said.
“The children are simply not getting enough experience of them.”
She said that one midwife had recently told her that it is becoming common for mothers delivering babies to text or post updates to their friends from the delivery room.
“They are not even really present at their children’s births any more,” she said.