New research has found excess screen time and a lack of physical activity is harming the mental health of our adolescents.

The study of more than 577,000 children – aged between 11 and 15 – from 42 high-income countries was published in The Lancet.

It found mental health was impacted after two hours of screen use for girls and after four hours for boys.

Screen use included television, video games and social media, but excluded screen time for academic purposes.

The study’s lead author Asad Khan, from the University of Queensland School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said they measured life satisfaction and psychosomatic health in participants.

“What we found was that mental health is a big issue,” Dr Khan said.

“We have also started seeing evidence coming through the scientific literature that overuse of screen time for recreation is also causing some issues in academic achievement, attention and other psychosocial problems like attention deficiency disorder syndrome.

“We have also seen that it is linked with depression and anxiety in this particular paediatric population.”

Important to balance screen time

Dr Khan said the study also found physical activity had a positive impact on mental health.

He said one hour of physical activity and no more than two hours of screen time a day provided “optimal mental wellbeing”.

“We need to recalibrate our kids’ behaviour towards a healthier lifestyle, meaning that when we can, [we should] replace the screen time with some outdoor activity.

“Targeting both behaviours simultaneously is likely to give us the best benefit.

“We are urging parents to actually minimise screen time as well as maximise the physical activity so we could give a better life to our kids.”

He said the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns had complicated the situation.

“The data was collected long before the COVID-19 pandemic where dramatic reductions in physical activity and increases in screen time have been observed globally,” he said.

“I think this is a wake-up call for us as parents, as a community, or as a society to look into this and try to help our kids to do more physical activity, to move more and sit less on a screen.

Dr Khan said boys are generally more active with their screen time.

“Boys are doing more of active screen time for computer, electronic games, whereas girls are not doing that,” he said.

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