A sedentary lifestyle with too much time spent sitting in front of screens – such as watching TV, playing video games and surfing the Internet – is harming children’s well-being and increasing their anxiety, according to a new briefing paper from Public Health England (PHE).

In the paper, titled “How healthy behaviour supports children’s well-being,” the PHE, a new executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health, says too much screen time is having a negative effect on children by reducing self-worth, self-esteem and levels of self-reported happiness.

Children who spend too long sitting in front of a screen can also experience more emotional distress, anxiety and depression, they add.

Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at PHE, told the press:

“There are many complex factors that affect a child’s well-being such as the wider environment they live in and their social, financial and family circumstances, but there are also some very simple things we can all do every day with our children to help improve their health and well-being.”

PHE says more than 7 in 10 youngsters in the UK fail to meet the minimum recommended level of 60 minutes of daily physical activity, and just over 2 in 10 do more than the recommended minimum, placing the UK in tenth position out of 29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The PHE briefing paper draws on new research, including evidence from academic studies and a new report from NatCen Social Research produced for the Department of Health, titled “Predicting wellbeing.”

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Children who spend too much time in front of screens, including TVs and computers, have reduced levels of self-worth, self-esteem and happiness.

The NatCen report re-analyzed data from a number of large studies, such as the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), Understanding Society (USoc), and the Health Survey for England (HSE), and tested a wide range of factors – spanning most aspects of life – as potential predictors of subjective well-being.

It found, among other things, that:

  • Levels of well-being vary across the life course, tending to fall a little in the mid-teenage years, then again at midlife, and finally among the oldest old.
  • Excessive computer gaming becomes more common as children grow into young people, and is associated with lower levels of well-being.
  • Those children who, on a school day, spent 4 hours or more on computer gaming tended to have lower well-being than peers who spent less time doing this.
  • The highest well-being was reported by children who spent less than an hour a day playing computer games.
  • Home dynamics also matters, especially “things such as feeling supported and sharing meals together as a family.”

The PHE briefing paper’s release coincides with a new NHS Change4Life campaign geared toward helping families use the back-to-school period as an opportunity to encourage youngsters to reduce screen time and adopt healthier habits.

Called “Smart Restart,” the campaign lists 5 simple things families can do in the first 6 weeks of the new academic year. These are:

  1. Stretch your legs – walk to school, or ride a bike or scooter, instead of a bus or car
  2. 10-minute moves – build up to 60 active minutes a day or more with fun, short, physical activities
  3. Screen-time switch – swap 30 minutes a day of TV, computer or tablet time for something physically active
  4. Beat the treats – swap unhealthy treats for healthier alternatives
  5. Super lunches – prepare quick, healthy, tasty lunches that keep children going through the school day.

Families can sign up on the Smart-Restart section of theChange4Life website to get ideas and tools to help them set goals and adopt the healthier habits.

The PHE briefing explains how children who spend more time being physically active tend to concentrate better in class and enjoy better relationships with their schoolfriends.

Children with a less sedentary lifestyle also have lower levels of worry, anxiety and depression.

As in Smart-Restart, the PHE paper makes the point that even small simple changes can shift a lifestyle from sedentary to active.

Lil Caprani, Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns at The Children’s Society, says this message also came through in the survey they did for their Good Childhood Report, where they asked children about their well-being.

They found a strong link between being active and being happy, and while quite sporty things like cycling, swimming or playing football all had a clear relationship, as one might expect, simple things like just going for walks were also linked with higher well-being.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD