Most of us know about the harmful impact excess screen time can have on children’s physical and mental health. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends no or limited screen time for children below five years of age. Screen time encourages sedentary lifestyles leading to problems like obesity, apart from poor brain development in the early years, sleep difficulties, vision difficulties, decreased attention span, irritability and impulsiveness, among other effects.
With more awareness about screen time, parents are trying different ways to keep their kids away from phones and other devices. But as adults, are we following the same rules?
Perhaps not. Even as we advise kids to reduce screen time, we ourselves are becoming increasingly dependent on phones and laptops for pretty much everything we do. An average Indian tends to spend nearly one-third of their waking hours or 1,800 hours per year on phones, according to a study Smartphone and Their Impact on Human Relationships, done by smartphone brand Vivo in association with Cybermedia Research (CMR). Again, about 28 per cent of smartphone owners look at their devices 11-25 times a day, while 22 per cent check 26-50 times a day, as per a 2015 survey by Deloitte. And if you are doing this especially in the presence of your child, he or she is likely to pick up the habit from you, no matter the kind of screen time restrictions you impose on them.
Children are known to learn things through imitation, their primary source being none other than parents. A 2019 study published in Psychological Science found that “children will copy everything that they see an adult demonstrate to them”. So, when your child sees you browsing through your phone each time you are bored, chances are they would also want to do the same, even after you tell them not to. This can be harmful for kids leading to what experts have called “secondhand screen time”.
Secondhand screen time
For understanding the effects of secondhand screen time, experts have compared them with that of secondhand smoking since both can eventually lead to addiction thereby harming health. In an article on The Conversation, Joelle Renstrom, lecturer, Boston University, writes, “Just as frequently being around other people while they smoke can cause cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and other ailments, what I call ‘secondhand screen time’ could be endangering children.”
Renstrom writes that even babies are lured when “see parents reach again and again for a seemingly magical object that glints and flashes, makes sounds, and shows moving images”.
The lecturer adds, “Who wouldn’t want such a wonderful plaything? Trouble is, if the desire for a phone builds in infancy, it can become second nature.”
Kids are exposed to screen time from an early age. By the age of eight, they have been found to consume the highest amount of screen time, especially if in home-based care or born to first-time mothers, according to another study published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Secondhand screen time also bears the risk of inappropriate exposure for kids. In another article on PyschCentral, Jeremy Bidwell, PhD, clinical psychology, and founder and director of The LodeStone Center, points out that parents sometimes assume their child is not paying attention to what they are watching but they may often end up seeing things we do not want them to which, in turn, can have a lasting impact on them.
A child is too young to fully understand how screen time can harm them. It is for parents to ensure that they do not get easy access to screen time, and that includes avoiding secondhand exposure.
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