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Your child has a headache? Too much screen time may be to blame

As computers, tablets, smart phones and other screens have become more common, children's headaches have multiplied. Bright, flickering screens are a strain on the eyes and can trigger a headache, while poor ergonomics can compound the problem.

Image: Yle

Nearly 40 percent of eighth-and ninth-graders in lower high school watch a variety of screens – including TVs computers, smart phones and gaming consoles – from two to four hours on school days. Almost every tenth child experiences more than six hours of screen time on a daily basis, and on weekends the amount of time glued to some sort of display increases.

This is according to data from a nationwide survey of school children that was conducted by THL, the National Institute for Health and Welfare, in 2013. The study also revealed that as and when screen time increases, so too do aching heads for youngsters.

Poor sleep, sore head -- bad conscience for parents?

If weekday screen time was four or more hours per day, over 10 percent of young people reported suffering from almost daily headaches. There was also a relationship between exposure to screens and sleeping difficulties. On the other hand, less screen time also meant fewer headaches and a better night’s sleep.

THL's special investigator Reija Paananen says the results can not be used to point irrefutably to the conclusion that headaches are a direct result of time in front of a bright display, however she does concede they give a strong indication that this is the case.

“It seems that the more time spent in front of a screen, the more symptoms children have. In the background there are certainly many factors. Extensive screen time seems to be connected to an increase in daily headaches and sleeping problems,” says Paananen.

Possible public health "bomb"

Other studies have suggested that the watching screens leads to worse symptoms in young people. Doctor of Health Sciences Paula Hakala has been researching how the increased availability of information and communication technology in recent decades has had a symptomatic affect on the musculoskeletal and support systems of young people.

“All symptoms in children and young people have increased,” warns Hakala. “For example, the use of computers causes symptoms in the head, eyes, neck and shoulders and lower back. Symptoms also present in the hands, fingers and wrists. The symptoms are widespread.”

Of course, information technology and the use of smart phones doesn’t just cause problems. In fact, such equipment can assist children's language learning, improve problem-solving skills and develop visual intelligence.

However, Hakala is concerned that being glued to various screens could be the next public health “bomb” when children hit adulthood. She cautions that children should not be exposed to too much technology at too early an age.

Keep it dim and quiet – and don’t slouch!

Paediatric specialist, Associate Professor Pirjo Anttila, also cautions parents on the dangers of IT overdose for kids. She recommends a maximum of two hours screen time per day, stressing that being static and immobile for long periods of time has a well-documented detrimental effect on health and wellbeing.

Furthermore, sleep disruption and abnormal nocturnal rhythms are the bane of the IT generation.

“The brain remains in active mode, if you watch the computer or TV before going to sleep,” explains Anttila. “The recommendation is to put all equipment away half an hour before going to sleep. This way sleep will be peaceful.”

A few simple tricks may help alleviate at least some of the symptoms caused by poor ergonomics. A good ergonomic position is as important for a child as for an adult and slouching and slumping is the usual suspect when it comes to headaches.

Screen brightness is also a headache trigger. Dimming screens and turning down the volume can help. Most importantly, children and adults should not stay up late, glued to the box, tablet or phone, reminds Anttila