Excessive screen time increases the risk of back pain among children

Diet and lifestyle 29. jun 2021 2 min PhD Anne Cathrine Jørgensen Written by Kristian Sjøgren

New research in Denmark shows that the longer children sit in front of a screen, the greater their risk of back pain. However, being physically active on a daily basis reduces the risk.

We live in a digital age and spend much of our life staring at a screen.

This applies to both adults and children, who spend many hours a day in front of a computer or with a mobile phone in their hand.

New research in Denmark shows that the more time children spend in front of a screen, the greater their risk of developing neck or back pain as early as 11–12 years of age. The same research also shows that daily physical activity can reduce the risk of neck and back pain and that the negative effect of excessive screen time potentially can be reduced by being physically active.

However, the results also indicate that extreme physical activity may potentially contribute as a risk factor for back pain.

“The fact that back pain does not first develop in adulthood but already in childhood is currently in focus. We may therefore already need to consider preventive initiatives for this age group. Screen time is an obvious candidate for causing back pain among children because screens take up a lot of time in children’s lives. Spending time in front of a screen further leaves less time for physical activity during a day. Until now, no one had investigated the associations between screen time, physical activity and the risk of back pain among children,” explains a researcher behind the new study, Anne Cathrine Jørgensen, PhD fellow from the Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen.

The research has been published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.

45,000 children in Denmark answered questions on back pain

Anne Cathrine Jørgensen examined data collected in the large-scale Danish National Birth Cohort that enables researchers to follow about 100,000 pregnant women and their children for many years.

Mothers and their children have been followed since around the millennium and have repeatedly completed questionnaires about their health and well-being. The children answered questions about back pain and screen time when they were 11 years old, and Anne Cathrine Jørgensen examined the data from 45,000 children in Denmark divided into groups according to screen time, back pain and physical activity.

This shows the following.

· 10% of boys and 14% of girls have severe back pain as defined by the researchers.

· 50% of the children had 2–4 hours of screen time per day; 21% 4–6 hours; and 9% more than 6 hours.

These figures are from 2010 to 2014, and Anne Cathrine Jørgensen expects that the current figures may be much higher today.

“These figures only reflect screen time outside school and are from an era when the iPad had just arrived and before most children got smartphones. Children therefore probably have much more screen time today than they did 10 years ago,” says Anne Cathrine Jørgensen.

Screen time and inactivity increase the risk of back pain

The researchers found that screen time was clearly associated with back pain.

The children with more than 6 hours of screen time daily had two to three times greater risk of having severe back pain compared with the children with less than 2 hours of screen time.

The researchers also divided the children into groups based on how physically active they were. Physical activity was assessed as an overall level based on sports during leisure time, the children’s own perception of their activity level in school breaks and in leisure time and whether they cycled to school.

Based on their physical activity, the children were categorized as inactive, slightly active, moderately active and extremely active.

The less active the children were, the more severe back pain they had. However, the extremely active children also had more back pain than the moderately and slightly active children.

The researchers further evaluated how the interaction between screen time and physical activity affected the risk of back pain.

“The numbers overall show that being physically active can reduce the negative effects of excessive screen time, especially among boys. This is not a definitive result, but the study indicates this,” explains Anne Cathrine Jørgensen.

Reducing screen time and increasing physical activity

Anne Cathrine Jørgensen explains that her study is just one way of showing that excessive screen time is unhealthy for children for many reasons.

Other studies have suggested that excessive screen time can affect children’s sleep and their weight and that both poor sleep and being overweight can increase the risk of back pain.

“Our study shows that turning off the screen and having a more physically active daily life probably also helps to reduce severe back problems,” concludes Anne Cathrine Jørgensen.

Spinal pain in pre-adolescence and the relation with screen time and physical activity behavior” has been published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. The Novo Nordisk Foundation supports the Danish National Birth Cohort Biobank, which is a part of the Danish National Birth Cohort on which this study is based.

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