If there’s one hot topic grabbing eyeballs everywhere on the internet today (quite ironically, to be honest!), it’s ‘screen time and its ill effects’. While we all concur that the Internet has been a big blessing in our everyday lives, it’s also the reason we feel a little close to helpless when the WiFi or 4G symbol disappears off our phones! And with the trickle-down effect in play, it’s the next generation, i.e., our kids who are now falling prey to the influence of these devices, day by day. If your own child now needs to focus on a screen while you feed him or need to keep him busy, screen time is definitely doing him more harm than you think!
Why Has Reducing Screen Time Become Such a Big Deal?
Reducing screen time for kids has become a general talk-point, and with good reasons. While it’s obviously beneficial that a child knows how to operate technology (and a matter of pride for the parent as well), it’s hardly the most important thing a child should learn in the first few years of his life. Especially up until the ages of five to six, a child’s brain is rapidly developing, feeding off every cue it receives. These can come from the world around the child, the people and things he interacts with, the places he visits and so on. Now, imagine how your child’s development can get affected if a majority of these cues come from electronic devices instead!
Major Problems Associated With Excessive Screen Time
The following are a few of the major problems that have been linked to excessive exposure to screen time at an early age.
1. It can affect a child’s sleep schedule and body clock.
The blue light emitted by digital devices can mimic sunlight, thereby throwing the child’s body clock out of sync. This is because exposure to blue light can suppress the hormone melatonin, which influences the body’s sleep-wake cycle. The lesser the melatonin levels in the child’s body, the more it can disrupt his sleeping patterns, especially if he’s exposed to screens at night. And there’s no need for us to explain why a growing child needs his sleep!
2. It can hamper speech development and affect attention span.
While this too is a space where more research is needed, it was presented in the May of 2017 at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting that the more kids were exposed to screens early on in life, the more likely it was for them to begin talking later in life. For each 30-minute increase in screen time (on handheld devices in particular), the increased risk of delayed expressive speech development was shown to increase by 49 percent. Experts have also noted a rise in cases of children speaking too little or late, with one of the probable causes being an excess of screen time exposure.
3. It can lead to behavioural problems in kids.
Given that children are sensitive to the influence of electronics, stress reactions induced by screen time has been linked to aggressive and disturbed behaviour in them. A recent study conducted in Canada also revealed that kids who had more than 30 minutes of screen time a day (i.e., two hours and above) seemed more likely to have problems like a poor attention span, or be prone to ADHD. Additionally, f the content the children are exposed to is not age-appropriate or is problematic, it can affect their behaviour and development as well.
4. Increased screen time equals lesser time spent on physical activity.
We’re sure this doesn’t require much explanation, because this applies to grown-ups as much as kids. While our generation depended on parks and gatherings with friends for playtime, very young children today get their share of entertainment from their parents’ smartphones. A lack of unstructured rigorous play and plenty of exercise can wreak havoc upon on a child’s growing and developing body, including problems with posture and excessive weight gain. In fact, a lot of the restrictions placed on screen time also stem from the basic logic that kids need to be watching and sitting less, and running around more!
What the Experts Have to Say
We spoke to three experts who shared their inputs on screen time and its effects on children. All three were of the opinion that screen time definitely had more cons than pros when it came to how kids were affected by it.
According to Kuhoo Gupta, an Early Childhood Educator and Parenting Coach at The K Junction, one of the frequent complaints parents today have is of how their kids are unable to master the pencil grip. She blames this primarily on the use of handheld devices, whereby kids are unable to refine their fine motor skills and only get used to the ‘swiping’ or ‘tapping’ motion to get work done. This is something that she says will definitely affect kids once they join school, when improving their penmanship will come into the picture. She also mentions how lack of physical exercise stunts the child’s physical development, especially that of the leg and calf muscles which are exercised by outdoor play.
Dr Priyanka Yadav, who’s currently practising as a Consultant Psychiatrist at Noida, and Dr Rashmi Prakash, a member of the Australian Psychological Society licensed from the AHPRA, have the same opinions when it came to the negative effects of screen time. They stress on how exposure to screen time has led to cases of delay in speech development, hyperactivity, inattention and depression in kids recently, which mainly occurs due to a lack of social interaction. They also mention the importance of physical play for kids, for their healthy development, and how screen time was cutting into that beneficial activity.
Dr Prakash also explains her personal disagreement with educational apps. She states that such lessons can always be learned in the future, while actual developmental lessons which stem from social interaction and unstructured play cannot be replaced with online education. According to her, kids up until the age of three or so should not receive many instructions while playing; which is essentially what an educational app does. And in a much more impersonal style than when it comes from actual people!
Can Screen Time Cause Addiction in Children?
Of the several negative effects associated with screen time, the scariest one of the lot has to be the claim that screen time has the same effect on children that cocaine can have! Research in recent times has shown that screen time leads to a spike in the level of dopamine (simply known as the ‘feel good’ chemical), that triggers the behaviour of ‘wanting more’. It’s the same chemical released while taking a bite of sinfully delicious food, while checking social media updates, and as mentioned, when cocaine or any other such substance enters the body.
So what does all this mean? Basically, the more the child has of something he likes (the substance or phenomenon that’s hitting the brain’s ‘pleasure centre’), the more the dopamine level in his body increases. This motivates him to keep having more of the thing that’s providing him joy, which in this case, is screen time.
But since the child’s brain is still in its early developmental stage, an excess of dopamine can strain the brain’s reward system. This, in turn, can cause the child to turn to something that can help spike his dopamine level, since it can’t be derived from natural causes. And that’s probably why your little one can’t get enough of watching his beloved Peppa Pig or Baby Shark on loop!
So What’s the Recommended Amount of Screen Time for Young Kids?
Too much of anything can obviously take its toll, especially on a young child’s developing brain. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:
- Zero hours of screen time for kids younger than 18 months (excluding video calls)
- Quality programming that the child and parent should watch together if he’s between 18 to 24 months of age
- An hour of co-viewing high-quality programmes if he’s between 2 to 5 years of age.
While this too is subject to constraints and conditions, these time periods can be a good starting point for you to implement screen time limits with your child. Another thing you can try is having a No Screen Day, keeping your child away from the screens altogether. Indulge in traditional methods of fun that do not require a screen at all and use this opportunity to bond with your little one. Once you try it, we’re sure you’re going to implement it more often!
Precautions and Remedial Measures
Whether or not there’s enough evidence yet to prove that screen time can be addictive for kids, we’re sure you don’t want your kids to prove this hypothesis right in any way! If your little one is already hooked to the TV or your smartphone, implement these remedial measures at the earliest.
1. Go cold-turkey!
While the effects of completely banning screen time can last for a week or so (and yes, you can expect severe withdrawal symptoms), this measure can work better than most in the long run. Dr Prakash suggests this measure from experience, which she reveals has seen success in getting kids de-addicted from screens. However, this shouldn’t come across as punishment to the child. If anything, this should offer him a chance to get bored, which would then force him to use his imagination and make use of his time in other ways. You can always use this opportunity to bond with your child with old-school methods of storytelling, singing songs, etc.
2. Wean him off screen time, bit by bit.
If a one-stop shot seems a bit too painful, wean the child off screens a little at a time. However, ensure that you do this with utmost strictness. When an hour needs to come down to half an hour, make sure your child’s whines and cries don’t tempt you into letting him have a few extra minutes on the screen!
3. Stop using phones to distract your child.
It’s quite helpful to use a screen to quickly distract a fussy child who won’t obey you or eat what’s on his plate. But it’s exactly this behaviour that slowly builds up over time into a habit, causing kids to retaliate when their requests for screen time are denied. Again, resort to traditional methods to entertain your child or grab their attention, while keeping the phone aside.
4. Link what he sees to the real world.
It’s obviously impossible to keep your child guarded from screens forever, but what you can control is what he watches. Make sure your child consumes quality content while on the phone or while watching TV, and whenever possible, try and build a connection to his environment. For example, you can show him the different fruits and veggies he saw on a show in your kitchen, enact his favourite songs, and so on.
5. Keep screens away from the bedroom.
Let your little one catch up on all the sleep he needs for his development. Reduce any digital consumption at least an hour before bed and ensure that no kind of screens are in his bedroom (or yours, if you co-sleep). And for those of you thinking about that alarm you set on your phone, well, the good ol’ alarm clock can also work just fine for that!
6. Set yourself a screen time limit!
We all know kids learn through observation, so it can easily confuse your child why he’s restricted from consuming digital media, when the same rules don’t apply to you! Parents, excessive screen time can influence you just as much as it does your kids (if you’ve ever felt your phone vibrate in your pocket or bag even when it wasn’t there, you know this is true!), so setting yourself a limit is important. There are apps you can install that will remind you when you reach your set limit, or simply keep your phone aside once home to spend time with your little one. Also, a screen time limit need not be for just a couple of hours – why not go for a No Screen Day, keeping away from the screens altogether? Once you try it, we’re sure you’re going to implement it more often!
7. Indulge in physical activity.
Again, this is not just for your child, but for yourself as well! Our busy lifestyles are quite sedentary, which affects our mental and physical health as well. And of course, to lead your child by example, it’s important for him to see you get your daily dose of exercise as well. As for your child, take him out to the park or garden, have him interact with other children, and let him enjoy quality time not receiving instructions from any corner.
8. Treat yourself first.
Dr Yadav puts this forth quite simply – you can’t correct or treat your child if you don’t treat yourself first. She advises parents to first relieve themselves of stress through self-help measures and even therapy, so that they don’t take it out on kids in any way. Similarly, therapy is something you should also consider for your child if he exhibits any severe behavioural symptom which you also suspect is a function of screen time.
Screen time does have its positives, provided it’s utilised in the right way and amount. But to replace the lessons that real-life experiences can provide with online ones and push kids down a rabbit hole of wanting more of screen time is signing up for trouble! Make sure you are fully aware of the content your child is consuming every time he plops himself in front of a screen. Apart from that, make sure he isn’t plopping himself in front of a screen every other time, and is rushing out to do some learning in the real world instead! Don’t forget, staying away from the screens periodically applies to you too; after all, it will benefit both you and your kids!
If you think an entire day away from screens seems almost impossible, think again! Thousands of moms are taking a pledge to try and accomplish just ONE day of zero screen time for their kids. If you want to join in, all you have to do is click here to take the pledge and join the ‘No Screen Day Challenge’, and connect with other moms to see what they’ve planned!
With inputs from:
- Kuhoo Gupta – The founder of ‘The K Junction’, Kuhoo Gupta is also a vocal coach and energy healer. She inspires and assists parents in their parenting journey through her articles, videos, and consultations.
- Dr Prakash – With 15 years of global experience in the field of mental health management and training, Dr Prakash has specialised in treating patients from various ethnic backgrounds. Providing prenatal and postnatal counselling, along with parenting training, are her key focus areas.
- Dr Yadav – A psychiatrist from AIIMS, Dr Yadav has a keen interest in issues related to parenting, child development, stress, and mental health. Initially trained at the Civil Hospital, Ahmedabad, followed by VS Hospital, she has also worked in AIIMS, New Delhi and at a community level with the Government of UP.