Weaning children off screens

The time spent on electronic gadgets without an educational reason is being linked to impaired learning

Published - January 07, 2018 01:02 am IST

Dr. Harish Shetty, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist, was convinced that his seven-year- old patient had a problem. He would get into fights with other children, had no friends, was frequently restless in class, and at other times, often falling asleep while a lesson was being taught. Teachers frequently summoned his parents to the school after which they finally agreed to have him checked at a suburban clinic and undergo behavioural therapy.

After a detailed examination, Dr. Shetty and his colleagues identified the cause of the boy’s troubles: excessive screen time. The boy spent hours every day using his iPad, phone and watching television. “We were taken aback when the parents told us that they had first bought an iPad for the boy when he was barely 2 years old,” Dr. Shetty recounts. “He could be fed only if he was given an iPad screen to stare at with a cartoon or some other video playing on it. Gradually, the boy spent many more hours exploring the iPad. But in the process, he hardly stepped out to play, did not make any friends in the building nor in the school.”

His parents believed the tablet would help him learn and occupy his mind, but the fact was that they were over-indulging him, the doctor says. “The anxiety and unruly behaviour in him stemmed from the fact that his social skills were underdeveloped,” says Dr. Shetty, noting that the child would spend hours on his iPad most often playing games until his parents came home from work. Then, he would play with one of their smartphones. Later, he would spend time watching television. Last year, when he stepped into class 1, the parents got him a basic cellphone to remain connected in case of an emergency. During recess time, he would be glued to his phone instead of playing and sharing lunch with friends. Altogether, he was spending an average of seven hours a day staring at electronic screens.

Its impact

Experts define screen time as the time spent watching television or playing games on tablets, phones, or computers without any educational reason. In a 2017 review paper, experts from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, U.S. blamed excessive screen time for limiting language skills in children. These skills are directly related to the amount of time parents spend speaking to their children. “Heavy television use or excessive screen time can interfere with a child’s language development because parents spend less time interacting and talking to their child. Furthermore, receptive language delays by age five are a significant risk factor for social and emotional problems in adulthood.”

Experts have linked increased screen time to other problems besides impaired learning. These include attention disorder, obesity, aggressive behaviour, sleep deprivation and insomnia. What’s more, the World Health Organization recently set out to identify “gaming disorder” as an addictive mental and behavioural health problem.

Under therapy, Dr. Shetty’s patient is now showing improvement as treatment involves his whole family. “We are gradually weaning him off the screens by letting him focus on other interests like drawing, crafts, etc. But we had to first start with counselling the parents,” he adds.

No Indian perspective

But paediatric neurologist Dr. Pradnya Gadgil from Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital says that there is a lack of research on this subject from an Indian perspective. In the U.S., Dr. Gadgil notes, studies had shown that the advent of cable television was correlated with an increased incidence of autism. Although social communication disorders are thought to have a genetic predisposition, environmental factors, including increased screen time, play a role. This is seen predominantly in households living the urban lifestyle.

Paediatric migraine common

When a child or even an adult is hooked on to an electronic screen, he or she is in a passive, frozen, hypnotised mode, Dr. Gadgil notes. “Our brain thrives when one is indulging in new activities. That’s when new circuits in the brain develop,” she explains. “With screen addiction, one is simply functioning on the same circuit passively. The brain development stagnates.” According to her, cases of paediatric migraines, which were rare a few years ago are now common. When one probes the lifestyle of affected children, it often turns out that they are spending many hours before a recreational screen, are rarely playing outdoors, consume processed food very often and fail to cultivate hobbies.

“Migraine, too, has a genetic predisposition. But there is undoubtedly a strong association between paediatric migraines and lifestyle which includes excessive screen time,” she observes.


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