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March 14, 2017
Children who spend more than three hours glued to a screen are at a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study.
These children had more body fat and greater resistance to insulin—a hormone that regulates blood sugar—than their peers who spent an hour or less watching TV or using computers. The findings were published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood by researchers from St George’s, University of London.
While previous studies indicate that extensive screen time is linked to risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes in adults, the potential risk for children has not been clear until now.
The researchers based their findings on a sample of 4,500 children between nine and ten years old, from primary schools in the cities of Birmingham, Leicester, and London. They collected information regarding the length of time children spent watching television or playing computer games.
About a third of the children said they spent less than an hour in front of a screen per day, while 18% said they spent three or more. The children who spent the most time in front of a screen scored higher on various measures of body fat and had higher levels of insulin after fasting. There was also a strong correlation between screen time and levels of a hormone known as leptin, which controls appetite. Even after the researchers controlled for physical activity levels, the trends remained.
The data used for the study was collected a decade before the prevalence of electronic devices, and the study did not follow up on the children to see whether or not they developed diabetes. However, researchers believe the link between screen time and the risk of diabetes will likely remain even with new data.
Here’s Nicola Davis, reporting for The Guardian:
Dan Howarth, head of care at Diabetes UK said that the study highlights a worrying trend.
“The rising number of type 2 diabetes in children is an alarming statistic and addressing the nation’s childhood obesity issues should be the responsibility of us all,” he said.
“Encouraging physical activity over a sedentary lifestyle, such as that relating to screen time, and a healthy balanced diet clearly plays a significant part.”
The prevalence of digital devices, like smartphones and tablets, is affecting teenagers, too, though not in ways you might suspect. According to scientists featured in a recent New York Times article, smartphones may be the new drug for teens.
Teen drug use has declined over the same period of time that smartphone usage skyrocketed, leading researchers to wonder if constant stimulation by gadgets is stifling teens’ urges to use drugs. They say that interactive media plays to the same impulses as drug experimentation.
A 2015 survey conducted by Common Sense media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that promotes safe technology practices for children and families, found that American teenagers between the ages 13 and 18 averaged six and a half hours of screen media every day.
Here’s Matt Richtel, reporting for The New York Times:
Dr. Silvia Martins, a substance abuse expert at Columbia University who has already been exploring how to study the relationship of internet and drug use among teenagers, called the theory “highly plausible.”
“Playing video games, using social media, that fulfills the necessity of sensation seeking, their need to seek novel activity,” Dr. Martins said, but added of the theory: “It still needs to be proved.”
Despite the ubiquity of smartphones and other electronic devices, researchers are only beginning to understand their impact on the brain—and our bodies.