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Renée Watson runs her own Oxford based science consultancy WATS.ON, where she boasts the delicious title of ‘Head of Explosions’.

The Big Bang

Renée Watson

At this time of year I am most aware of the need to add ‘Juggler’ to my CV, what with school holidays, work and the rest of life all needing attention. My big goal for September is to have just a little sanity left intact! It is during this juggling act that the pressure of “screen time” becomes a momentous issue in our house. So I thought I would brush up on what science is currently telling us about safety of screens.

My son’s screen of choice is the iPad, which he will happily play on until he has basically turned into a Minecraft character. My daughter isn’t fussy, she will take whatever she can get because I am a mean mummy and do short timed sessions (as I do for myself).

But how much time is OK? There are all kinds of numbers flying around – no more than one hour a day in one report and no more than four hours per day in another. Some reports suggest that teenagers are spending as much as 11 hours a day on screens of one kind or another. But why worry about time on screens at all? Two reasons: obesity and brain wiring.

The majority of scientific research is looking at digital technology and childhood obesity, where screen time is considered problematic because of the time spent sitting still. One of the problems with the idea that kids who spend lots of time playing games or watching TV are more likely to be obese is that sitting still can happen when you read too much or when you meditate.

I think we need a mental shift away from blaming technology towards thinking about what percentage of time our kids spend being active. The research supports this idea. The other problem is that there are so many factors affecting a child’s health, it is proving very difficult to tease out the actual impact of digital technology – particularly since the introduction of more movement-based games like Pokémon Go (don’t get me started).

The impact of a screen on the brain is different depending on the type of screen. Sitting and watching TV has a different effect to playing on a games console. Playing on an iPad is different still, because by touching the screen directly with your hands, you stimulate different areas of your brain.

It is clear that using digital technologies changes the way neurones connect up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Every time we learn something (riding a bike, playing tennis, reading or playing a new game) the wiring in our brain changes, so you would expect the brain to change in response to our use of digital technology. We really don’t know yet what the long-term effects on this re-wiring will be.

In short, the evidence is still pretty thin on the ground, so the old saying, “Everything in moderation”, is by far the safest bet when it comes to kids. A good balance of physical and digital activity will minimise the chance of harm in future and will stop me feeling too guilty about allowing a little bit of screen time in among the tree climbing and trampolining.

- Renée Watson