Social media use harming children’s health

A dramatic rise in the use of computers and social media is damaging the health of young people, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Data for England, Wales, and Scotland shows that children as young as 11 are spending more time on computers, smartphones, and tablet devices.

Experts say this is increasing the risk of ill-health, and the vast majority of young people are failing to take the recommended level of exercise each day.

The study found a “continuous steep increase”, between 2002 and 2014, in the proportion of children and young people using technology for two hours or more each weekday, whether it be for social media, surfing the internet, or homework.

While use increased for both sexes, it tripled for girls aged 15, with experts blaming the rise of social media.

In England, in 2014, for children aged 11 to 15, 74.6% of girls and 76.5% of boys used a computer, tablet, or phone for two or more hours on a weekday for purposes other than games.

In Scotland, the figure was 79.9% of girls and 83.6% boys, and in Wales there were 76.4% of girls and 84.6% of boys — all more than a 50% rise on 2002 figures.

Of 42 countries studied by the WHO, Scotland was highest for computer use by girls, while Wales was fourth, and England seventh.

For boys, Wales was second, Scotland third, and England 15th.

The WHO, together with experts from the ‘Health Behaviour in School-age Children’ study, sent questionnaires to 200,000 children in schools in 42 countries, including 5,335 in England, 5,932 in Scotland, and 5,154 in Wales.

A breakdown by age showed children as young as 11 spending a large chunk of time online.

In Wales, 53% of boys and 47% of girls aged 11 used a computer for two or more hours on a weekday for purposes other than games.

In Scotland, the figure was 42% of boys and 45% of girls, while in England it was 39% of boys and 43% of girls.

Out of 42 countries, Wales ranked third, Scotland was fourth, and England was seventh.

When it came to using computers, tablets, or smartphones just for games, between a third and two-thirds of children were spending two or more hours every weekday on them.

Lead author Jo Inchley, from the University of St Andrew’s, said the rise in social media was having an impact on young people.

“We know that a positive impact of social media is social connectedness and the sense of interaction,” said Dr Inch’ey.

“But we also know there are risks, such as cyber-bullying and impact on mental health, as well as things like missing out on sleep. 

“Also, there are longer-term impacts on physical health, from being sedentary.”

She said these risks included cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.

She added: “One of the main challenges, for us, is that this kind of activity [social media and computer use] is so much part of young people’s lives these days. How do we manage this and the health risks associated with it?

“It’s about reducing time being spent sedentary, and ensuring that children still have opportunity to be active. We really need to start addressing these challenges now.”

The report is being presented at the European Congress on Obesity, in Porto, Portugal.


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