Don’t hit play
Considered as an easy way to engage the child, parents often resort to screen time. But is this doing more harm than good?
With the transformation of mobile phones into smartphones, the birth of on-demand streaming networks and social media platforms, the last decade has seen an astronomical surge in the consumption of screen media. The biggest victim of this “development” is the developing child.
A child learns from what they see. More than expensive schools or gadgets, a child needs people to interact with. Fortunately, in our culture, we interact with parents, grandparents, neighbours, relatives, classmates and fellow citizens and have the privilege to learn from society. Growing up, we learn to express our thoughts and feelings, social cues and etiquette by observing people around us. Unfortunately, since they are diverted towards their screens, children are missing out on learning from their social environment. The screen acts like a veritable blindfold that prevents the child from interacting with the real world around them and creates an artificial world of games, applications, cartoons, etc.
There are five domains negatively impacted by screen time :
A growing child requires twelve hours of continuous sleep. The blue light emitted from the screens inhibits the production of melatonin, a chemical vital to the onset of sleep. Research indicates that uncontrolled screen time is associated with later bedtimes and wake times, late onset of sleep, and a shorter duration of sleep. Therefore, a child should avoid screens prior to sleeping to ensure adequate rest.
The developing vision in an infant will benefit greatly if there is no access or exposure to screens. This will help develop the ability to track movement and explore their environment visually. Screen time is associated with eye strain, headaches and poor retinal health in children. It also is associated with the progression of myopia forcing children to wear glasses.
Screen time has encroached into mealtime with caregivers allowing fussy children to watch videos while eating. The child ends up being addicted to the screen and demands it continuously and loses focus on their food. Screens have also replaced physical play. Young kids prefer playing on their gaming consoles rather than a play ground. It is recommended that a growing child have at least two hours of daily physical activity outdoors. It not only provides the child with a medium for exercise but also gives the child an outlet to vent his energy, aggression etc in a healthy way while learning about hard work, practice, teamwork, how to deal with losing, the joys of winning and so much more. An increased metabolism lowers the risk of obesity, diabetes in a child, a quality that cannot be mimicked by screen media.
- Mental Health
Research shows the association of screen time with lowered psychological well-being. There are studies that link increased screen time to inattention, distractibility and less emotional stability. New studies link neuro-developmental disorders such as Autism with early exposure to screen time.
Studies indicate that early exposure to screens is associated with language delay in children. It is a misconception that exposure to screen media benefits the child’s language development. Children may learn the vocabulary that occurs within a video such as a nursery rhyme, but may not be able to associate that with the real world.
We understand that it is difficult — especially among working parents, single parents and nuclear households — to be constantly interacting with the child. The screen provides an outlet for the child to be distracted momentarily and gives the caregiver some time to unwind. However, it has to be controlled. Five easy solutions to reducing screen time are :
- No screens before 2 years of age
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no screens before 2 years of age, with the exception of video calling in addition to other guidelines about screen time. Screens can be introduced in moderation when the child is exposed to high-quality programming after the age of three.
- More physical play over screen time
Children should be encouraged to engage in sports, gymnastics, martial arts, dance and other physical activities. This will not only allow the child to develop a hobby but also socialise, learn discipline and responsibility etc.
- Screen activity should be more social rather than solitary
Spend time with your child when they engage in screen activity. For example, watch a movie at a theatre or play a video game together. Ensure that there is a conversation about the movie after. This will help create a bond between the caregiver and the child.
- Set fixed rules about screen time
Each household should have fixed rules about screen time. Begin by allocating only 15 minutes of screen time a day for a young child above the age of three. This should be enforced at all times. Screens should not be allowed before bedtime or during meals. We must ensure that screen time does not replace human interaction.
- Allow the child to have “real” experiences and responsibilities
Allow the child to do simple tasks like taking the plate to the sink, cleaning easy vegetables like green peas (also helps in developing the fine motor skills of the child). Take the child to the local market while shopping to learn the names of fruits, vegetables, etc instead of teaching the same on a gadget. Once the habit is inculcated, it would be easier for the child to learn important life skills like handling money, responsibility, interpersonal interaction etc.
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– Dr. Samir Hasan Dalwai
The author is a well-known Developmental Paediatrician.