Health effects of excessive gadget use in children

Monday January 13 2020

 

By Elizabeth Tungaraza @Liztungaraza1 etungaraza@tz.nationmedia.com

If you happen to go to a restaurant, mall or even homes, you’ll notice the youth and children of today staring down, glued to glowing screens of smartphones and tablets.

Several researches conducted; show that children use four to five times the recommended amount of technology — which sometimes leads to serious negative health impacts.

For example, a team of researchers at University of Iowa have discovered that by age two, 90 per cent of modern children had a moderate ability to use a tablet.

Did you know that in tablet-owning households, seven out of 10 parents let their children play with their tablets?

One among them is Mariana John*, a write based in Dar es Salaam who regrets seeing her 8-year-old today addicted to a tablet.

Not only this, Mariana fears her son is already facing serious health issues that has become of a concern.

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“It all started when he was much younger and I began giving him my phone as a means to calm him down. It helped as he would sit and watch cartoons on the phone quietly,” says Mariana.

By then Mariana didn’t know that she was creating an addiction problem for her son. Things were changing slowly as the boy grew up. His love for smart phones and tablets shifted from cartoons to online games.

“He always bothers me with his frequent requests for permission to use a tablet. When he is back from school, the first thing he asks for is the tablet. When he wakes up on weekends, he asks for the tablet even before he washes his face or brushes his teeth. If it happens a visitor arrives at home, the second thing the boy will do after greeting the guest is to ask for the smart phone,” says Mariana.

Mariana didn’t know that giving unlimited access to smart phones and tablets to her son at young age would turn into an issue of a health concern.

“He complains of neck pain a lot and eye strain, lately. And stresses on the fact that I massage his neck every night,” Mariana says she is concerned.

Sometimes, Mariana says that often times she notices her boy scratch his eyes – which isn’t normal.

“There’s no turning back. I’ve tried everything to reverse the addiction problem but I fail. I really don’t know if I need to take him to the hospital as this is really bothering me as a parent,” Mariana says.

The World Health Organisation last year, echoing the recommendation of the American Academy of Paediatrics, recommends that children between 2 and 5 should be limited to one hour of screen time per day, and lesser is better.

This is not because screens are themselves dangerous to children. But a child’s preoccupation with the screen robs her of time to be physically active and get much needed sleep. Physical activity and exercise offers a lot of benefits needed for a child’s physical and mental development.

Negative health impacts of screen addiction

Whether smartphones has destroyed a generation, is a debate that won’t be put to rest anytime soon. But health experts warn on the negative effects of screen time on children’s health.

Several studies that range from childhood to adolescence focuses on topics including sleep, eye health, depression and successful interventions to reduce screen time.

1. Dry eye syndrome

Most parents do not understand that screen time may results in a lot of problems, if it is in excess, even worse, argues Dr Cyprian Ntomoka, an eye specialist based at Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania (CCBRT) health centre.

“We as parents don’t realise but giving a child a smartphone or a tablet or any electronic devices means we are raising a generation with eye problems, serious ones,” Dr Ntomoka warns.

He continues to explain that a child’s vision ability grows gradually. In order for them to sit far from the screen and see clearly, a lot of efforts from their eye muscles are needed, hence straining the eyes.

However, due to their short sighted ability, it is more likely to find them [children] sitting near the TV set when watching cartoons, for instance. For those who use gadgets like smartphones and tablets, they hold the device close to their eyes for them to see properly, this causes a lot of eye strain that is really dangerous.

Dry eye syndrome is another problem, likely to affect children who look at screens excessively. “The risk of developing dryness into their eyes is big. Their eyes becomes red and irritated and causes scratching of the eyes,” the eye specialist explains.

This is a typical case of what Mariana is currently noticing in her son.

2. Unhealthy sleep patterns

Elise Moreau, a health and lifestyle writer at lifehack.com, writes that it’s not the kid-friendly content you have to worry about – it’s the effect of excessive amounts of screen time your kids are being exposed to on a regular basis.

Any form of media that has a screen emits blue light that tends to mimic daylight in a way that confuses our internal body clocks. Both children and adults rely on their circadian rhythms to regulate their sleep cycles, but when their eyes are exposed to this blue light too late in the evening or at night, it sends a signal to the brain that it’s daytime and that it’s time to stay awake.

One study found that infants and toddlers who watched TV were more likely to experience irregular sleep patterns.

3. Abnormal pain

Just like the case of Mariana’s son who started complaning of neck pain; health experts warn that aches and pains in the neck, shoulders, back, hands, thumbs and other parts of the body can be due to gadget addiction.

Smartphone use forces people to tilt their heads down to look at them while moving their wrists and fingers in unnatural ways.

Doing this frequently and for prolonged periods can cause pain and even permanent damage to bones and joints in the upper part of the body – especially the neck and spine. According to one leading Australian chiropractor interviewed by The Daily Mail Australia, an increasing number of children and teens are becoming hunchbacks because of their smartphone addictions.

4. Obesity and non-communicable diseases

This is no news. The excess use of smartphones has turned our children into zombies spending more time indoors than outdoors playing, running around. As a matter of fact, bing-eating is a by-product of such a problem. The effect? Overweight and obese children.

The number of obese children and adolescents rose from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016 – a tenfold increase. An additional 216 million children were overweight. Childhood obesity rates appear to be plateauing in high-income countries, but at very high levels. One of the contributing factors being a sedentary lifestyle that causes poor eating habits and lack of exercise in form of play.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that children and adolescents require a minimum of one hour of physical activity every day, and that one-hour minimum should involve moderate-intensity to vigorous-intensity activity.

A study that looked at how ‘Screen Time Is Associated with Adiposity and Insulin Resistance in Children’, researched the relationship between screen time and Type 2 diabetes risk factors, like being severely overweight.

Children who spent over three hours daily on screen time were less lean and more likely to show signs of insulin resistance, which can contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes, compared with their peers who reported one hour or less of screen time each day.

5. Attention disorder

James Bitesigirwe, the Head Teacher at Kibangu English Medium school says that they do encourage research using electronic devices but for a limited time and should strictly be educational.

“There’s definitely a behavioural change that I see in today’s generation when it comes to discipline and attention span. You can tell that majoirity of students’ understanding and thinking capacity has been attacked by a virus called gadget addiction. It’s a problem, a big one,” Mr Bitesigirwes explains.

According to a study by Victoria L. Dunckley, published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, too much screen time is creating subtle damage in children. Many children suffer from sensory overload, hyperactivity and a lack of sleep. “These children often act impulsively, are moody, and can’t pay attention in class or at home,” the study says.

6. Depression

Children who are old enough to use smartphones and tablets to connect with friends on social networking platforms may be negatively affected by the things that they see and experience. Psychologists reveal that since they’re still learning about the world around them and where they fit in, it’s common for children to use social media to compare themselves to their friends, invest a lot of energy into posting to impress others, and even worry about getting enough likes or comments.

A study from the British Psychological Society found that the pressure for teens to be available on social media 24 hours a day and seven days a week was attributed to low self-esteem, poor sleep quality, anxiety and depression.

Time to intervene

Dr Ntomoka says, “It is advisable to sit not more than one hour using any electronic device due to blue light intensity produced from the devices. This will avoid them getting dryness sight due to a chronic lack of sufficient lubrication and moisture on the surface of the eye.” He adds that parents can use auto-switch off mode on devices to limit their time.

As in the case of Mariana’s who cannot eliminate tablet addiction of his son completely, she needs to learn how to make screen time an interaction between her and her son rather than using screen as silencer or pacifier. Experts suggest that to make screen time a shared three-dimensional experience. The brain development and language development happens when you talk about what is happening on screen, similar to reading a book to your child.

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