The menace of increasing screen time among kids is not unknown with many parents actually having a tough time keeping their kids off mobile phones and other devices. But we cannot view the problem in isolation. Kids are becoming dependent on screens not just because of easy access but also because that’s what they see in adults too who are constantly browsing for everything, from entertainment to information.
Why are kids getting addicted to screens?
Look around and you will find that mobile phones and laptops have replaced good old toys. Every time a child is restless, all one needs to do is to play a video for them or show them an online game or use it as bait if they refuse to eat. In no time, your child becomes obsessed with screens.
How does that happen? “Mobile phones stimulate the reward centre of the brain, which is why children get drawn in. Toddlers are usually given mobile phones to make them sit at one place and not loiter. We don’t allow them to explore and move around,” Dr Debmita Dutta, parenting consultant and founder, What Parents Ask, told Express Parenting.
Teenagers, on the other hand, are at a greater risk of becoming dependent on mobile phones and similar devices, which impact their physical and mental health. Several cases of online game addiction, leading to alleged suicide too, have been reported of late. Internet de-addiction centre Anandvan in Maharashtra, for instance, received up to 2028 phone calls in June seeking advice on limiting screen-time for kids, of which 1,112 calls came from parents, who complained about their children spending hours on the phone or maintaining secrecy around social media activities. and so on. One such case is of a child who came for treatment after having locked himself in a room for 18 hours, playing games and chatting on social media. “There have been a lot of cases of screen addiction among children aged 14-21, some of whom are being treated at our centre now,” said founder Dr Ajay Dudhane.
Are parents responsible too?
Teenagers typically tend to spend a lot of time on devices. Dr Dutta, explained, “Teenagers look for connection and appreciation, which they may not find in the real world. As the child grows older, we tend to subject them to more criticism, comparison and competition. The virtual world is an escape from all that. Who does not crave for ‘likes’ on social media? If the child has been on devices since he or she was a toddler, more often than not, he or she does not know how to connect with people and prefers being on the phone.”
Loneliness or the absence of anyone to talk to is also a major factor that contributes to screen addiction. Add to that the monotony of your child’s daily life caught between school assignments and tuition. And that’s where mobile devices become their companion. “Devices feed the dopamine (a neurotransmitter, also known as pleasure chemical) pathway. Teenagers need more dopamine than anyone else. They constantly need excitement to keep their dopamine levels high,” Dr Dutta said.
For Gagan Deep Singh, mom to a nine-year-old boy, screen time is a serious concern. “I am facing this problem at home a lot. And I wish there was something I could do about it. In fact, after my son’s healthy eating habits, screen time is the next most important issue I worry about. It’s your fault that you got them a smartphone to start with because initially, we just wanted to keep track of his location to ensure he is not lost. There is peer pressure along with that, apart from the devices that our child has access to. Each time we are eating, we are watching TV. When my son comes from school, he wants to relax and wants an hour of TV time, which may extend to two. He is also a single child, which is also a big reason because you can only play with your child so much. And he takes on to the phone or any other device because he does not have company or he can’t go out for some reason. It’s actually a vicious cycle. We are equally to be blamed although. We try to sit him down, spend more time with him. I am also getting him more into outdoor activities like football. With schools open, the exposure is lesser since he is busy. But problem happens more on the weekend or vacation or if he is home on his own,” she said.
How to reduce exposure to screens
Besides being unable to interact with people around them, kids also show other symptoms of screen addiction. Dr Dudhane talked about how parents often find their children not eating, studying or sleeping properly. Cases of severe addiction have also led to the kids hallucinating or showing behavioral problems like irritability. In some cases, it led to depression.
The need of the hour is to look for ways to mitigate the problem. At Anandavan, for instance, the treatment for de-addiction follows an elaborate process. The moment one steps in, he or she has to switch off his or her mobile phone. The parents and the child are counselled on screen time after which, they are made to fill questionnaires separately. The treatment begins with meditation, followed by counselling by doctors at the centre.
As per a recent report by New York Times, parents in the US are hiring parenting coaches to counsel them to raise screen-free kids. Coaches tell parents about how parenting and life worked before screens. Going absolutely screen-free may not be a possibility in today’s age, but parents can at least find measures to reduce their child’s exposure to screens. Instead of relying on screens to keep children engaged, parents have to focus on ways to improve their communication with the child. “We need to gradually draw them out their shell by talking to them to make them feel secure and confident. The key thing to understand is that children want to engage, and when there is no person around to do it, they being to rely on devices,” said Dr Dutta.
That said, you cannot expect kids, who spend hours on devices, to suddenly give it up all and chat with you. Don’t force them; just be around and they will gradually star getting comfortable talking and sharing things with you. As Dr Dutta suggests, you need to give them that safe space to connect with parents.
As Gagan Deep points out, we cannot blame children alone for the rising problem of screen addiction. It is also the responsibility of parents to monitor their child’s online activity frequently. “Smart phones have undoubtedly made our lives easier but we need to encourage ethical, correct and controlled usage. To ensure that, parents also need to talk to their child openly about all issues that may be bothering them. Use of social media needs to be restricted. You cannot do away with it completely but exposure to screens should not be more than two to three hours a day,” advised Dr Dudhane.