#parent | #kids | Matters of the mind: The screen time debate

Written by Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal | Mumbai |

Updated: June 26, 2020 11:50:53 am


Learn how to strategise screen time for kids. (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)
A significant and impending concern for both parents and schools is the amount of screen time and exposure children will experience in coming months. This “dent in our world” has been discussed, debated and researched upon for several years with ever evolving theories on advantages and disadvantages of screens and proposed practices. The result is a lot of micro information, increased confusion, selective perspectives, arguments and neverending negotiations for parents at home.

So the question remains, do we or don’t we allow tv screen time, how much is okay and when should we consider this the onset of an addiction?

This topic is heavily interrelated with parental lifestyles, choices made with subjective perceptions, limited options due to work, circumstances and at times personalities. With both parents working, often the iPad or PS4 with the child back home on a holiday reduces the intrusive guilt at work. Not all families have grandparents around, may not have help and often cities don’t offer reliable creche services. Even if one of them is a stay-at-home parent, with chores, social to-dos and limited patience, it’s an easy solution to give in to. Children also experience peer pressure at school over gaming, gadgets and tv shows. All perfectly relatable. The questions remain, do we or don’t we?

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There is only one way to find an answer. Collate all information, the good, bad and ugly, and answer one simple question — which payoff are we willing to live with? This may not be the scientific answer you are looking for, but it is definitely more productive and less confusing for both parents and children who oscillate weekly between bans and permissions. Let us review the information at hand and hope we get somewhere by the end of the read. The key is to decide.

The research appeal:

As far as screen exposure is concerned, whether we turn a blind eye to it or not, argue as we may, enough and more research supports that it has negative effects.

1. Mood – Children with more screen time exposure were found to be edgy, agitated and moody. Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, found that kids who spend more time on screens tend to be less happy than kids who engage in non-screen activities like playing sports, reading traditional printed media or spending time socialising with friends face-to-face. Attention deficit, depression and irritability have also been found to be associated with screen time.

2. Sleep – Some of Twenge’s recent work has linked newer forms of media, particularly smartphones and social media, with sleep problems among adolescents. In a recent study, 16 male patients were analysed for sleep associated deficiencies after playing video games for one night. It was found that these individuals exhibited poor attention and focus; these deficiencies were pronounced after playing video games on consecutive nights.

3. Behaviour – Investigators found that two hours or more of screen time per day resulted in children being seven times more likely to meet criteria for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and 5.9 times more likely to report clinically significant inattention problems. Agitation and anger, increased appetite and lack of enthusiasm for exercise were also reported.

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4. Brain development – Too much screen time can impair brain structure and function; MRI scans found significant differences in the brains of some children who reported using smartphones, tablets and video games more than seven hours a day. Children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests. Screen time is known to affect white matter integrity, which is basically the density of neuronal connections in the brain. Other affected areas are expressive language and attention span.

5. Computer eye syndrome – Prolonged exposure to computer or gadget screens may lead to vision related problems. Eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes are some common symptoms.

6. Postural problems – Sitting for long hours on a chair, couch, bed or floor and watching or gaming is bound to cause aches and pains due to strain.

Screen negatives have been confirmed and studied, believed and consistently discouraged by schools, counsellors and mental health experts.
parents, screentime How much screen time is too much? (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)
Following are some suggested guidelines by various experts on time and curfews.

0-3 years – Without question, screens are not good for them at all. At this age, the brain is going through “the critical period” due to the prolific growth taking place in the brain. For young children, extended screen time can have a negative, lasting impact. Too much screen time during this age range can leave their still developing brains permanently damaged. If absolutely unavoidable then for children 18 months to three years old, parents should choose only high-quality media and watch it with their child, engaging and interacting with them. Under 18 months is a vehement no!

3-5 years – Less than one hour per day of high-quality programming is recommended, with parents watching along. The key is to ask questions, stimulate their brains in ways more than the tv or iPad can do.

6-12 years – Two hours! This is where the negotiations begin. More than 2 hours is still known to cause significant alterations in mood and behaviour.

Over 12 years – Not more than three hours. There is enough data on adolescent difficult behaviour in correlation with screen or gadget use for over three years. Academic grades, sleep, mood and substances have all been found to be correlated with increased screen time.

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Now here is the thing. Life as we knew it has changed. Who knows, humans and brains as we know them are changing and evolving. Everything we knew to be routine and normal is lost or at least blurred. We are now in the middle of a pandemic, juggling work from home along with household chores with eager, energetic kids bouncing about, struggling to keep the family safe and healthy, uncertain when kids can go back to school, walking a tightrope with finances, missing the faces of our dearest friends we met once a week, desperately hoping to miraculously find a cure, as we wash our hands for the 50th time in the day, secretly dreaming of a peaceful hot cup of coffee (when kids are at school) with no anxiety over a dangerous virus lurking around. The less I say about the contrast between the past as we knew it, the chaos of the present and the barely certain future, the better.

With change comes adapting, exploring, renewing and reviewing. Our generation is put to a test that is not just legendary in its novelty and etiology but also prognosis. With limited information and choices we must make historical decisions regarding education, scientific research, national policies, work ethics, and of course, how much time our kids can safely be in front of the screen.
online classes, tech tips online classes, how to use smartphone for education, tips for students taking online classes Are your children addicted to the screen? Find out here. (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)
There is no certainty of kids being able to physically attend school this year. Schools have no other way but to teach on screens. In fact, schools and states are debating online schooling as we speak for precisely similar worries. Some states have made research-based decisions and banned online schooling for younger kids and some are still to declare the fate of schooling. Schools need to function, have collected fees, want to educate and are quite honestly in a soup themselves.

The question remains, do we or don’t we consider online/screen school?

The online school appeal:

Neuroscience states that indulging in any kind of activity, selectively stimulates localised areas in the brain. For example, gaming, such as a popular game called Fortnite, is known to increase visuo-spatial capacity and ability to manipulate objects among users. It works on the variable reward systems much like slot machines and thus too much of it, could cause addictive behaviour.

Now, it’s worth noting the stark differences between tv, gaming, gadget use and online schooling. Having a teacher on the screen, engaging children, teaching and explaining will not (just) stimulate same areas in the brain responsible for gaming and will need much prodding and encouragement to even form a habit, forget addiction. Teachers will be teaching different subjects causing neuronal stimulation and access to different localised areas in the brain. Areas for language and expression will be stimulated too. Cognitive processes such as problem solving, mathematical ability, creative writing and scientific enquiry will all provide a diverse multitude of neural stimulation.

Lack of engagement and interaction was one of the biggest worries with kids staring into the tv for hours, on which most of the past research was based and concluded on its damaging impact. Such will not be the case with online schooling and in fact, schools can work on making the online experience much more inclusive of visual, auditory, possibly kinaesthetic, too, if they are able to share course material beforehand, workbooks, course material, science kits et al. They can add a lot of short breaks, for example, stand up and sit down / spot jog/ deep breath /stretch/ snack break/ between classes.

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The curriculum planning for an online programme must take into consideration many such potential damage diffusers and include specific brain stimulating activities based on neural research compensating for missed personal guidance, attention and human contact. One of the chief milestones that parents worry about children missing out on is social connect and development.

I believe that we have all done well in staying connected around the world over phone calls with school and college friends, some of which are connections quite deep and meaningful, so I do feel positive about the nextgen adapting to new ways of bonding. They will learn! As for social development, such as leadership, conflict resolution, working in teams, taking initiative and cooperation are lessons we will have to talk about, read out loud and demonstrate at home and include in curriculum for kids as a EQ and social development subject.
kids, screentime, addiction, indianexpress Are online classes counted in the screentime? (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)
Physical growth and exercise will be fun to watch online. If it were me learning, I would place myself in a corner where the teacher couldn’t see me and I would lounge, but I’m quite certain schools have dealt with many like me by now and will mange to make our kids do 20 minutes of workout. They don’t have to do be staring into the screen for this. They can record and upload practicing the workout sheet without facing the screen.

We can find ways around it if we are willing to move forward with what we know and like I said earlier, making a decision.

Fire is dangerous, but we use it five times a day with kids at home, same with knives in the kitchen, but we have handheld children and taught them how to use it or stay away. We will have to teach our kids how to use screens. We will have to work with them and show them how screens can hurt. They have only seen screens as entertainment and now the perception will have to be changed. Some of the things that parents can do to reduce chances of damage and risk:

1. Increase engagement, ask questions
2. Plan breaks
3. Do eye exercises, anti glare glasses, reduce brightness
4. Set timers
5. Check privacy policies and put parental controls in place
6. Supplement the missing pegs – increase physical exercise, go back to writing games (anagrams/Pictionary/name, place, animal, thing / memory games). Increase psycho-emotional support by sparing time to connect with kids over feelings

Do we or don’t we, how much should we, are questions every parent is capable of deciding for themselves, accepting that it’s okay to not have control over guaranteed consequences in future. No action will be perfectly safe, and none will ensure complete damage. Based on age, stage of development and learning needs, schools, governing bodies and parents need to make a collaborative effort in handling the academic year 2020-2021. While that kickstarts, let’s stop waiting for things to get back to the way we knew and start adapting. Indecision may cost us more than side-effects of one way or the other.

(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist.)

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