Screen time is fun for children of all ages. In this age of technology, it isn’t uncommon to see young children adeptly use digital devices. In fact, children as young as two years old are capable of entertaining themselves for hours using television, tablets, mobile phones and video games.
Parents use digital devices like these to entertain, educate and even distract their children when necessary. Nevertheless, excessive exposure to screens can have lasting effects on the health, emotional development and mental capabilities of a child.
Let us look at what recent research tells us about too much screen time for children, and what we can do to control it.
Link to childhood obesity
Several long terms studies have linked TV watching to excessive weight gain in children. When your child watches TV or uses other technological gadgets, he spends this time in a sedentary position. The lack of exercise is usually clubbed with increased junk food intake. As a result it is natural to pack on extra pounds and end up being overweight. This increases his risk for obesity in adulthood and other associated complications.
Light exposure from screens keeps the brain alert and promotes wakefulness. Using electronic devices closer to bed time disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Your child’s brain will remain engaged and restless and this will make it difficult for him to relax at bedtime. When digital devices replace bedtime activities like reading and talking, the overall quality of sleep is affected.
Lack of concentration and restlessness
Children who spend a great portion of the day glued to screens are restless and unable to concentrate on other tasks. They are quickly distracted and have a short attention span. This is because television and video games provide instant stimulation and visual rewards, which is absent in real-life scenarios. This is why your child may spend hours sitting still in front of a technological device, but fails to focus in another environment.
Poor social skills
Limited exposure to social situations often results in a lack of essential social skills that children need in their lives. Normal social skills like adjustment with peers, age-appropriate behavior and interactions, effective communication etc are impeded by an excessive addiction to the virtual domain. Although your child may be tech-savvy, this lack of social skills will be a huge setback for him in his adult life. It can affect his ability to cohabit with others, adjust and compromise with family and friends and future personal and professional relationships.
Tendency for violent behavior
Studies show that children who spend a lot of time watching violent TV shows and playing such games have greater tendency to display aggressiveness in teenage and adulthood. Many video games are based on the idea of vanquishing opponents and include weapons and violence. The quality of programs your child watches also directly impacts his emotional health. When children watch violent shows, they pick up aggressive traits. They may later display this in their interactions with peers and family.
Problems with vision
Heavy gadget use in young children increases the risk for myopia and other vision problems. Usage of computer, television and hand-held devices forces a child to strain his eyes for the duration he watches it. Your child’s visual system isn’t mature enough to handle this stress. Staring at a screen for too long without blinking can cause pain and impact vision. Associated problems like body aches and pains from sitting in one position for too long are also common in children who spend several hours in front of screens on a daily basis. New research has also linked smart phone use in children to crossed eyes.
Attachment problems and disobedience
Your child needs time to interact and build relationships with those around him. He is naturally wired to respond to touch, voice and sight. Direct interpersonal interactions promote mutual attachment. When there is a healthy family relationship, communication is direct. It is easier to discipline a child and teach him to behave, obey rules and follow instructions. When addicted to screens, your child will tend to block out the environment around him. Such ongoing addictions can result in lack of direct interactions. This will in turn affect his ability to communicate and understand others. While your child may be able to communicate through emails and text messages, he will be unable to communicate and build a connection in person.
What can parents do to reduce screen time and minimize the adverse effects
Most of the issues we discussed are associated with overuse of technological gadgets. When used judiciously, technology can be an effective tool in the overall development of our children. For this, we should teach our children to stop before it becomes addictive and to function as effective human beings in its absence. Here are some steps to make this possible.
- Set a strict limit on daily screen time: Make sure your child gets sufficient exercise and spends time outdoors before playing games or watching TV. Use device settings and suitable apps to automatically control the time your child spends on screens.
- Avoid use of screens close to bedtime: Experts advise that kids put down digital devices at least an hour before bedtime. Take all technical gadgets out of the bedroom. Practice a bed time routine that involves reading, story telling or other gentle activities that will help your child relax and unwind.
- Supervise all onscreen activities and television time: Make sure that the programs your child watches have positive messages. Avoid shows and games with violence. Encourage educational programs and activities and make sure your child accesses only what is appropriate for his age.
- Set the right example: Pay attention to your media habits and your child will follow your example. Implement a no gadget rule at meal times and use this time to talk and engage with each other. Enjoy family outings, play board games, visit shows and libraries and expose him to other ways in which he can have fun.