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Dr. Gopika Prasad ,
Specialist Paediatrics

Is screen time a safe time for children?

Technology and its ever exploding possibilities has hooked us to gadgets. Today's children born in this environment are quickly taking in this high tech culture. It is common to see toddlers and young children using gadgets everywhere. Be it in an elevator, doctor's chamber, park, or on the street, kids are increasingly drawn to this "stimulating toy" since infancy.

How do screens affect a child's development?
  • Vocabulary or information perceived from digital media does not create a lasting memory as compared to language acquisition from face-to-face interaction.
  • The cognition, perception and imagination of children who are exposed to media from a young age are not at par with children who develop with active interactions with caregivers.
  • Excessive television viewing in younger children is associated with delay in social and emotional This could be because of the decrease in parent–child interaction when the screen is on.
  • More often than not, the visual distractions are too much for developing brain. They might lead to irritability and behavioural problems such as aggressiveness and anger in children.
  • Lack of physical activity, prolonged screen time and improper nutrition while being glued to the screen, contribute to emerging health problems in young age, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apneas.
  • Exposure to media in the evening/late hours also affects the sleep quality. There is also a suppression of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness) due to the blue light emitted from screens. Not to mention certain scenes that may cause nightmares and disturbed sleep.
  • In terms of academic performance in school children, studies have found that time spent using gadgets is related to negative effects such reduced writing and reading skills, deficits in attention, visual memory and imagination.

In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain's frontal lobe, which greatly determines success in every area of life from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills.

The solution? Infant and toddlers need to have face-to face-interaction with their caregivers for their all-round positive development. It is very important that they use their senses to explore their environment by themselves. This slower process of listening, imagining, exploring and understanding helps more in their development across all domains.

The latest version of American Academy of Pediatrics states that infants and toddlers up to 2 years should not be exposed to digital media for any duration other than the time they have to be shown in a video chat with a responsible adult.

In children from 2 to 5 years, high quality programmes structured scientifically may be offered for toddler viewing, for less than an hour, but it also requires parents to share this media time with children. Parents should interact and teach the content to the kids at the same time, which enforces the learning process. Screen time should be limited to one hour for this age group.

Parents have a great role in modifying the habit of screen viewing. Their screen time exposure is directly linked to their children's screen use. Reducing the use of digital media by parents has a greater impact than trying to discipline the children by enforcing home rules. Also, do not use mobile phones during dinner time, prayer time or in your bedroom. Make sure that all electronic gadgets are switched off one hour before sleep time. Keep the television away from bedroom.

It is very important to spend "unplugged" quality time with developing kids whose foundation are built by the quality of our interaction with them. Children who receive nurturing interactions from their caregivers have more positive outcomes in terms of development, learning, emotional control and interpersonal relations.

Finally, avoid using media as a means to calm your infant or toddler. Parents should be the role models of interpersonal relations and face-to-face friendship. Alternate forms of entertainment such as physical activities should also be encouraged in boys and girls.