By Dr Pratibha Singhi
The initial years of a child’s life are very crucial for their long-term health and well-being. The primary reason for this is the rapid growth and development of the brain that starts before birth and continues into early childhood. While the brain keeps developing throughout life, the childhood years help in establishing a strong foundation for life-long learning and good health. Nurturing the child’s brain and body is the key responsibility of parents, and experiences during childhood can have a long-term effect on the child’s development.
Advent of technology leading to excessive screen time
Most millennial parents are pressed for time owing to stress and pressure at the workplace. This has a direct impact on their engagement levels with children. It results in the latter turning to alternate modes of engagement such as mobile phones, television, tabs and computers. In fact, many parents hand over gadgets to their children to keep them occupied. Technology also allows for a convenient alternative to physical activities such as playing outdoor games for both children and parents.
A report by the World Health Organisation further shows that “an average child and teenager between the age of 8 to 18 years consumes at least seven hours of screen time per day in contradiction to the recommended guidelines of one to two hours or less per day”. A majority of brain development happens in the early years when the brain triples and grows in size rapidly. Therefore, the demographic whose brain health is negatively affected the most due to exposure to screen time is children.
Adverse effects of excessive screen time in children
· Excessive screen time has an adverse effect on the psychological and physical health of a child.
· Screen-based activities often delay bedtime resulting in insufficient and low-quality sleep. To add to that, the content shown can interfere with the ability to fall asleep due to the physical and psychological effects. It hampers the child’s concentration and imagination. In fact, the light from the screen has a direct impact on the alertness and circadian rhythm of the child. Circadian rhythm can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits, digestion as well as body temperature.
· According to The American Journal of Pediatrics, “screen time has an adverse effect on the communication skills and language development of the child”. Children under the age of two, who watch screens more than the permissible limit may talk later and have an issue deciphering meaning.
· Screens lead to decreased attention span and lead to impulsiveness in children. Each hour of television viewed led to a 10 per cent increase in the risk for attention problems when the child enters school. This is because a child’s brain is being preconditioned to expect rapid, changing stimulation.
· Another negative implication is the portrayal of violence in children’s programming. It is more violent than adult programming with violence being portrayed as funny most of the time in cartoons.
· The background noise from television is associated with decreased attention, lower quality interactions with parents, and behavioural and cognitive problem.
· One of the key side-effects of screen time is obesity caused due to inactivity, lack of movement and binging on unhealthy foods. Every hour spent on smartphone, tablet, computer or television increases the risk of obesity by two-folds.
· Screen time is a contributing risk factor in children suffering from ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and autism. While it may not be a causative factor, it does contribute since it socially isolates the child.
Measures for curbing excessive screen time
· Encourage and motivate children to step out and play, engaging in physical activities such as running, jumping, cycling, etc.
· Parents can create a customised family media use plan so that there is time for face-to-face interaction, family-time, outdoor-playing, exercise and sleep.
· Create screen free zones in the house such as during dining time, in the child’s bedroom and during social gatherings.
· Do not use educational videos as a mode to enhance language and communication skills of your child especially that of toddlers.
· Induce the habit of ‘earning’ screen time in children. It is important to establish healthy limits on the use of electronics at home.
· Activities such as mind puzzles, mediation and exercising can strengthen brain health and should be made part of the child’s regular routine. Parents must participate in these activities as well.
· Have a chat with your child about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators.
· Engage more with children daily through reading, having conversations, cooking, gardening, drawing and other activities to limit their screen time.
· Refrain from using screen time as a solution for problems such as the child acting out in public, not eating adequately during meal times or demanding for something.
Children need an environment which is safe with adequate opportunities to play and explore for optimum development of the brain. Factors such as stress and trauma can negatively affect the brain while activities like reading, talking and playing stimulates brain growth. Therefore, parents must ensure a conducive environment for their child to grow in. While technology has rapidly evolved over the last few years, positively benefiting mankind in many ways, it should just be treated as a tool by optimising benefits and minimising the negative effects.
(The writer is Director – Paediatric Neurology, Medanta, The Medicity.)