That TV and computer craze, which is giving everyone cancer

8 January 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in News

In what I can only assume is an attempt to join the Daily Mail bandwagon of classifying everything depending upon whether or not it's going to kill you, the Daily Mirror today lead with the story that the “TV and computer craze is giving kids cancer”.

Well, it's not. Not according to the press release on which the story is based, anyway - it doesn't mention children once. The only data in the story are from a commercial report from Childwise last year (all yours for the princely sum of £1800), and that doesn't mention cancer anywhere. The Mirror manages to further bungle information from the report - we're told that "With the sort of technology now available, children are spending more time in front of a screen than ever", alongside a graphic that, actually, shows pretty much no increase in the average time watching TV, spent online or spent on a console between 2002 and 2012. Even more strangely, the graphic that the Mirror chose to use online shows a drop in the amount of time spent online per day between 2002 and 2012, compared to the one in the print version. Or is that time spent watching TV? Who knows?

Online version (top), print version (bottom)


Annoying niggles aside, the story is basically a misinterpretation of some quite sensible information from the World Cancer Research Fund. Their original press release highlights the very real link between sedentary behaviour and its association with obesity, type-2 diabetes and heart disease. In turn, obesity increases the risk of developing cancer. It's not just an issue for children - anyone at any age who engages in too much sedentary behaviour is at risk. And that's a problem for many adults today, who spend a good proportion of the day working at a desk, or sitting at home watching TV in the evening. The WCRF press release offers a bit of advice on how to break up long periods of doing nothing, such as getting up to speak to co-workers or to get a drink every so often, and basically not turning into a couch potato as soon as you get home. For more sensible advice, check out the Cancer Research UK website here.

The press release is fairly straightforward and unambiguous in the message it's trying to get across. So how did the Mirror manage to mess it up so badly? Enter Professor Mitch Blair, Officer for Health Promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. "Whether it's mobile phones, games consoles, TVs or laptops, advances in technology mean children are exposed to screens for longer amounts of time than ever before" says Blair (er, see above graphics)."We would also advise restricting prolonged periods of screen time and recommend less than two hours a day in total", he goes on to say.

Screen time. 2 hours a day. RCPCH. If any of these are ringing any bells, that's because they were all in the news last year, when Aric Sigman gave a guest lecture at the RCPCH's annual conference in Glasgow. I wrote about it at the time, and again a few months later when Sigman had an opinion piece published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood (the RCPCH's flagship journal). The recommendation that children spend no more than 2 hours a day comes from that piece, and is based on guidelines being issued in other countries on the matter. As I mentioned in my blog, this ignores research suggesting that guidelines that are issued for one geographical location won't necessarily work all that effectively in another.

Now, to be fair to Blair, he doesn't mention a link between cancer and watching TV or using computers. But why the RCPCH is involved in this piece is absolutely beyond me.  More worrying is this continuing trend for the RCPCH to apparently want to be associated with sensationalist headlines, cherry-picked information and misinterpretation of data. Are all of these stunts calculated, or are they simply spectacular PR fails? Either way, it seems like someone at the RCPCH needs to start asking serious questions about why this is happening. If it's deliberate, then shame on them. As Ben Goldacre so eloquently puts it, integrity is easy to spend on a few minutes of fame, but much harder to earn back.





One Response to “That TV and computer craze, which is giving everyone cancer”

  1. Eidur | Permalink

    There might well be a correlation, but unless sedentary behaviour causes an increase in cancer risk, then telling people to move about more is not going to help anyone. That sort of advice from the WCRF seems to me to be almost as evidence-free as the Mail's coverage of the subject. Hardly sensible, like you describe it, and certainly not scientific.


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