Keep children away from TV before age of 3, parents told

CHILDREN who are kept away from TVs and computers until they reach the age of three are less likely to become couch potatoes in later life, experts claim.

• Children are developing over-dependency on small screens

• Typical 11-year-old now has access to average of five screens at home

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• Dopamine plays key role in formation of addiction to television and video games

Psychologists say children are developing a lifelong dependency to small screens because of over-exposure to the technology in their childhood, something which is similar to drug or alcohol addiction.

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Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist, will reveal today that the typical UK teenager now spends six hours a day watching the small screen at home – on mobile phones, computers and TV.

Speaking at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) annual conference in Glasgow, he will discuss how a typical 11-year-old now has access to an average of five different screens at home.

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Dr Sigman says children are now so hooked on TVs and computers that they risk suffering long-term changes in their brain’s circuitry, similar to the effects of substance dependence.

The addiction is a result of the neurotransmitter dopamine being released in response to the novelty and stimulation of what a person sees on the screen.

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Dr Sigman said: “Dopamine is a key component of the brain’s reward system and heavily implicated in the formation and maintenance of addictions.

“While genes play a role in the way dopamine is produced or used, there are now concerns that extensive computer game playing in children may lead to long-term changes in the brain’s reward circuitry that resemble the effects of substance dependence.”

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Children who sit in front of screens for too long are also at significantly increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease due to being less active than they should be.

The psychologist said: “Technology should be a tool, not a burden or a health risk. Whether children are formally ‘addicted’ to screen technology or not, many of them overuse technology and develop an unhealthy dependency on it.

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“By the age of seven, the average child born today will have spent one full year of 24-hour days watching screen media.

“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, and amount of exposure along with ease of access and the effects of role models and social learning, all strongly increase the risk.”

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The expert said parents had to teach their children by example by spending less time at screens themselves. He urged parents to set limits and said studies had shown the age of first exposure to the small screen should be raised to at least three years old.