Experts grapple with the vexing question of how much screen time is too much for children

While very young children up to six years of age should mostly be kept away from screens, a more nuanced approach can be considered for older children based on when and what they engage with online 

Updated - September 04, 2023 10:47 am IST

Published - September 04, 2023 03:00 am IST - New Delhi

According to child psychologists, exposure to gadgets at a young age can lead to serious developmental issues. File image for representation.

According to child psychologists, exposure to gadgets at a young age can lead to serious developmental issues. File image for representation. | Photo Credit: V. Raju

It is 6 p.m. in the evening and three-year old Vihaan is in the neigbhourhood park. As children around him run and play with each other, Vihaan (*name changed) is busy talking on the phone with his imaginary friend Singham, a cartoon character. 

His father Arun Srivastava (*named changed) explains that it’s the child’s defence mechanism to avoid interacting with his peer group, and Vihaan prefers imaginary company over actual play with other children. 

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This is an increasingly prevalent behavioural issue in many children with busy parents in nuclear families, who are left with gadgets to keep themselves busy, experts said. 

Laptops, mobile phones, tablets and television have become a part of every child’s life. But how much is too much? This question plagues most parents. 

Age-based approach

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), while children under one year of age should not be exposed to any devices like mobile phones and laptops, screen time for children from one to five years should not exceed one hour in a day.

The Indian Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children below two years of age should not be exposed to any type of screen, whereas exposure should be limited to a maximum of one hour of supervised screen time per day for children in the 24-59 months age group, and less than two hours per day for children in the five to ten years age group. 

According to child psychologists, exposure to gadgets at a young age can lead to serious developmental issues, both cognitive and emotional, in children. 

“The use of mobile phones, especially in the first six years of a child’s life, actually affects brain development. A lot of health issues might not show up immediately but later in life,” Charan Teja Koganti, neuro-psychiatrist at the KIMS Hospital, Kondapur, Andhra Pradesh, said. 

Dr. Koganti cautioned that there should be zero exposure to gadgets, particularly up to two years of age. 

Older children, on the other hand, are often required to study online, as was seen during the COVID pandemic. Many experts argue that children cannot be isolated from the Internet and a safe level of exposure is beneficial for the development of cognitive skills in the 6-14 years age group. 

However, there has to be clear demarcation between time for online studies, and gaming and social media. 

“For 6-14 years, the maximum screen time should be six hours per day, according to the WHO, but only if a child has online education. Otherwise, the preferred time is two hours,” Dr. Koganti said. 

‘Healthy screen use’

“We have to clearly differentiate between problematic screen use and healthy screen use,” Yatan Balhara, child psychiatrist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said. 

War games, for example, can lead to aggression and poor impulse control. Social media can make children dependent on validation. They could find it challenging to develop friendships in the physical world or plan life in a physical space. The use of Internet and mobile devices also exposes them to substance abuse and pornographic content. 

Watching and playing games or spending time on social media could lead to addiction, but for online classes and activity tutorials, this should not be a problem, although it could lead to some physical health issues like obesity and myopia. 

Experts, however, agree that it is very difficult to create compartments as screen time is not a uniform concept. 

Controlled access

Many parents are depending on tools provided within screen-based gadgets to control what their children can access.  Mobile phones have for a long time had such tools. For instance, the iPhone has a ‘Content and Screen Time’ setting that can limit children’s screen time, and select which apps are subject to time limits; Apple also allows parents to select the ‘Limit Adult Websites’ option to restrict access to mature content. These limits, which exist on phones using Google’s Android operating system as well, rely on parents setting a PIN that only they know.

However, they may not be useful if a child doesn’t her own phone and instead borrows her parents’ devices from time to time — parents would then have to make navigation on their own phones less convenient for themselves. 

Some parental apps installed on children’s phones monitor kids’ screen time use, and alert parents when they access inappropriate content or use an app for too long. This approach is less restriction-centric and instead relies on parents to convince their children to change their digital behaviour. 

Learning by example

Child psychiatrists and paediatricians say parents have to set examples as children learn by imitation. 

“I advise parents also to reduce screen time and spend time with their children. Arbitrary bans do not work. Sit with the child and together form a schedule or duration per day. You have to explain to them that prolonged usage for parents is for jobs,” Dr. Koganti said. 

There should also be clear demarcation of ‘no screen areas’ at home. For example, the dining and sleeping areas should be ‘no screen areas’. “If a parent gets a call, then he or she should explain that this is a work call and they would have to take it,” he added. 

Stricter enforcement

Dr. Koganti feels policy-level enforcement should be stricter. “There is nudity and sexually explicit language in many programmes. OTT platforms should have a separate password for accounts based on age groups. Children would then be forced to watch what they are left with,” he said. 

Screen time limits have become a part of the Union government’s demands from at least two influential video game companies singled out with bans — Battlegrounds Mobile India (BGMI), and Garena Free Fire. 

BGMI was published by the Chinese firm Tencent under its older PUBG Mobile avatar, and was banned amid border skirmishes with China in 2020. After BGMI signed up 100 million users in its new form, it was once again banned without explanation when returned, as was Garena Free Fire, which is published by a Singaporean firm Sea Limited. 

When BGMI’s ban was reversed, executives at its publisher firm said one of the conditions was limiting screen time for players, as China does. The game now limits minor users to three hours a day, and adults to six hours a day. Sea Limited, which announced Free Fire’s ban was ending at an event in Noida on Thursday attended by the Singaporean High Commissioner to India, said that the game now “include[s] a verification system to enable parental supervision, gameplay limitations and ‘take a break’ reminders”. 

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