Girls and boys come out to play .... not in this hi-tech world

Was it remiss of Colette Sheridan to wish that a crying child on a bus be shut up by a phone? In her weekly column she examines if kids are getting too much screen time
Girls and boys come out to play .... not in this hi-tech world

Young people today spend hours on devices, and may be damaging their mental health. 

ON a bus last week, a bawling toddler upset the equilibrium of the commuters and my first thought was — give the child a phone.

Soothing words didn’t work so the mother duly shoved her phone in the little boy’s hands — and the caterwauling stopped. He was totally engrossed, swiping, looking and swiping again, using the intuitive device as if he was born to it.

And of course, he was. Every child seems to know how to work a phone.

But it was remiss of me to wish that the child on the bus be shut up by a phone. Shouldn’t his mother have played a game of ‘I Spy’ with her son, getting him to notice his surroundings and thereby improve his vocabulary?

Oh give us a break, I hear mothers and fathers say. Getting a fractious child to keep quiet and sit still is well nigh impossible without some technological intervention.

But it’s an insidious pay off. Too much screen time (reckoned to be more than two hours per day) can have a detrimental effect on children and teenagers in terms of cognitive skills and sleep quality.

Depressive symptoms in 14-year-olds are also linked to social media use and that connection may be much stronger in girls than boys.

A study published last week in the journal EClinicalMedicine showed that among teens who use social media the most — more than five hours a day — there’s a 50% increase in depressive symptoms among girls versus 35% among boys, when their symptoms were compared with those using social media for only one to three hours daily.

The study, carried out in the UK, can’t prove that frequent social media use causes depressive symptoms. But it does show a strong association between the two, with symptoms of depression including feelings of unhappiness, restlessness or loneliness.

The study looked at sleeping habits, experiences online including cyber-bullying, body image, and whether teens are happy with how they look, as well as self-esteem. Sleep (and the lack of it) and cyber- bullying appear to be the most important factors manifesting in depressive symptoms.

But why the higher proportion of girls exhibiting depressive symptoms?

Yvonne Kelly, first author of the report and a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, said that it’s probably to do with “the types of things that girls and boys do online”.

She added: “In the UK (and presumably in Ireland), girls tend to more likely use things like Snapchat or Instagram, which is more based around physical appearance, taking photographs and commenting on those photographs. I think it has to do with the nature of use.”

Also, it’s a fact that girls are at a greater risk of depression than boys after puberty. The causes of depression include social factors. If being online is one of those factors, then the emergence of depression in greater numbers among girls is not surprising.

Social media and technology advancements have, in many ways, made life easier in terms of access to information and connectivity. But the digital revolution is also scary.

Author of The Cyber Effect and a UCD academic, Dr Mary Aiken, has written some salutary words. “By the time we get to 2020, when we are alone and immersed in our smart homes and smarter cars, clad in our wearable technologies, our babies in captivity seats with iPads thrust in their visual field, our kids all wearing face-obscuring helmets, when our sense of self has fractured into a dozen different social network platforms, when sex is something that requires logging in and a password, when we are competing for our lives with robots for jobs, and dark thoughts and forces have pervaded, syndicated, and colonised cyberspace, we might wish we’d paid more attention.

“As we set out on this journey, into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, what do we have now that we can’t afford to lose?”

It’s hard to believe that Dr Aiken is writing about next year. And what can’t we afford to lose given the Star Trek-type world she has painted?

Well, let’s not shove technological devices at small children to distract them.

Another study, carried out in the US, has found overall cognition skills were best among the one in twenty children surveyed who got between nine to eleven hours sleep, less than two hours recreational screen time per day and at least an hour’s exercise daily.

These children performed around 5% better in tests than the average child.

Significantly, the study isolated screen time as the likely key factor.

Children who were glued to their screens for less than two hours a day saw performance around 4% stronger than the average among their group.

So less screen time is a no-brainer.

Whatever happened to going out to play?

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