Gone are the days when children used to play outside under the sunshine; playing football till dark when the ball could not be seen anymore; making their own toys and swings under the mango trees. These valuable times have been replaced by smartphones, televisions and video games, especially in urban areas. Children use most of their free time watching cartoons, music, movies, soap opera, and playing video games.
Nowadays, parents feel proud when they watch their children able to use the smartphones and tell stories from the movies and soap operas. They even encourage children to use them; using them as a distractor so that parents can continue with their private issues undisturbed.
Excessive use of these gadgets, no matter how much satisfying they seem to be; they are injurious to children health and well-being. Screen time and contents should be limited according to the age of the child.
Excess screen time is associated with poor cognitive development. It reduces memory; leads to poor concentration, and information processing in children. They are addictive, leading to compulsive behavior whereby children feel that they cannot live happily without using them. They always feel the urge to use them. It is common to find parents and children battling for a smartphone or a TV remote control.
Frequent use leads to dopamine surge in the brain which is responsible for “feeling good”. With prolonged use, the pleasure associated with the contents increases the level of attachment to these gadgets, preventing them from performing other activities. Some fail to concentrate at school, always thinking to go back home to play their favorite games or watch broadcasts.
Screen use at night especially soon before bedtime is also associated with poor sleeping pattern. The blue light emitted “tricks” the brain to remain in the day “default mode” leading to interference in normal circadian night and day rhythm. Sleep deprivation is associated with poor health outcome such as poor concentration, poor school performance, recurrent allergies, and poor growth.
Uncontrolled screen time is also associated with delayed language and communication skills. This has been observed more in boys compared to girls.
This is because they have little time to learn how to communicate with siblings and parents. It has also led to poor social interactions, as they use much of their time interacting with gadgets but detached from the “real world”. As they grow to adulthood, they may encounter challenges in interpersonal relationships and poor emotional intelligence.
Excessive screen time leads to delayed mastery of basic skills such as doing shores, painting, beading, drawing and coloring. It is also associated with difficulty in writing due to limited fundamental fine motor manipulation and eyes to hands coordination.
Children who use screens excessively are associated with the “digital eyes”, the condition with recurrent eye burning and itching. Prolonged eye straining may also lead to headache, fatigue, blurred vision, and persistent neck and back pain. High energy, short wavelength from blue and violet lights produced by smartphones are associated with progressive loss of vision and premature macular degeneration.
Some of the video games, TV broadcast and movies are not appropriate for children. They may promote unwelcome behavior such as violence, inappropriate language and perpetrate physical and sexual abuse.
The current increased incidence of obesity has also been attributed to excessive screen time. It encourages sedentary life style and snacking in high calorie food with little other nutrition values such as crisps, cookies, candies and sugary beverages.
Experts in early childhood development supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) have developed recommendations to monitor screen time in children. It recommends no screen time for children below 18 months, except for video calls with close relatives. Toddlers (18-24 months) should use screen for less than one hour per day while pre-school (3-5 years) should use screens not more than one hour per day. The contents should be educational, and they should watch with their parents/ caretakers who should interact with them and help them to understand the contents.
In order to discourage excessive screen use, parents should encourage children to engage in other activities such as building blocks, drawing, playing with other physical toys, helping in light home duties, and reading story books.
Parents/caretakers should participate in these activities. Use of smartphones and TV should be discouraged at any cost during meal time, and before going to bed. TV set and video games should not be installed in children’s room. Parents should also not excessively use the smartphones and TV especially when they are with children. They should be models, portraying the behavior they wish their children should have.
The author is a Paediatrics and Child Health Specialist at Hubert Kairuki Memorial University in Tanzania