Could the Daily Mail actually be RIGHT? Does web usage harm a child's mental health?

Round ups, Web 2.0

Heavy web use harms a child’s mental health: Every hour raises risk, warns watchdog“, screams the front page of today’s Daily Mail, in typical Mail style.


As you might imagine, being a citizen of the internet I was ready and raring to go to town on it. How dare the Mail attack the thing I love? If I don’t defend the internet from this outlandish attack, they’ll be gunning for everything else I love next. So I wanted to write a big post debunking it, exposing the Mail as the scaremongers and luddites that they are.

There’s only one problem though… broadly speaking, the point they’re making might be right.

The story comes from a submission by Public Health England (a government agency) to the House of Commons committee on child and adolescent mental health. It was published this week. In their submission, which isn’t a very long document, it outlines some statistics and the agency’s recommendations on what should be done. And this is what the submission says about web usage:

“Impact of digital culture: Understanding Society survey results for 2011-12 suggest 85.5% of children belong to a social networking site. In England, the proportion of young people playing computer games for two hours or more a night during the week increased from 42% to 55% among boys and 14% to 20% among girls between 2006 and 2010[7]. Increased screen time and exposure to media is associated with reduced feelings of social acceptance, and increased feelings of loneliness, conduct problems and aggression[8]. Certain internet activity (social network sites, multi-player online games) have been associated with lower levels of wellbeing[9]. The evidence suggests a “dose-response” relationship, where each additional hour of viewing increases the likelihood of experiencing socio-emotional problems[10],[11],[12].”

Whilst it’s not PHE’s own research, if you follow the citations back, they do refer to actual peer-reviewed scientific research:

[7] World Health Organization (2011), Health Behaviours in School Aged Children (HBSC), World Health Organization Collaborative Cross-National Study – findings from the 2010 HBSC Study in England
[8] Public Health England (2013), How healthy behaviour supports children’s wellbeing, London
[9] Holder, MD, Coleman, B & Sehn ZL (2009), The contribution of active and passive leisure to children’s wellbeing, Journal of Health Psychology, 14 (3), 378-386
[10] Yang, F, Helgason, AR, Sigfusdottir, ID & Kristjansson, AL (2013), Electronic screen use and mental well-being of 10-12 year old children, European Journal of Public Health, 23 (3), 492-498
[11] Russ, SA, Larson, K, Franke, TM & Halfon, N (2009), Associations between media use and health in US children, Academic Pediatrics, 9 (5), 300-306

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the journals nor the scientific training to critically examine the findings of these individual journal articles – but the fact that they’re peer reviewed means that other scientists have looked over the findings. And assuming that Public Health England have accurately relayed the key findings then… damn… I guess the Mail are right to make these claims after all.

However – where you could perhaps claim the Mail has been a little disingenuous is in that it has only cited the internet paragraph from the report alongside all of the scary statistics about how many children suffer mental illnesses. There’s no mention of the bullying paragraph – aside from the quote from Childline at the end about cyber-bullying:

“Bullying: Bullying others and being bullied are associated with lower wellbeing. The Understanding Society survey suggests 12.1% of children have been bullied four or more times in the last six months. In some areas more than 10% of children reported being bullied. Data from the Tellus survey stated one-third of pupils do not think their school is managing the problem well. Childline[13] has reported an 87% rise in contacts related to online, cyber- bullying.”

But on the whole… as painful as it might be to say it, it seems that the Daily Mail is right. In fact, Dr Ann Hoskins, Director Children, Young People and Families at Public Health England outright says:

“The more time children spend on computers, watching TV and playing video games, the more likely they are to experience higher levels of emotional distress, anxiety and depression.”

“Children obviously need to use computers to do homework, but the priority for parents and children is moderation.”

“The more active children are, the better they are able to concentrate in school, the more likely they are to have positive social behaviours, like being kind to classmates, feeling liked by their peers and feeling they have enough friends.”

So, umm, I guess it might be wise to switch off for a bit after all.


James O’Malley
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