A study published in the medical journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health has revealed that children aged 2-3 who spend three or more hours daily viewing screens, which include mobile phones, tablets and televisions, end up becoming physically less active by the age of 5.5 than those who spend an hour or less in front of the screen. The study also revealed that the amount of screen time that children were exposed to had a negative association with sleep, light physical activity and moderate to vigorous physical activity.
On the contrary, children who were exposed to shorter duration of screen time developed healthier habits and associated behaviour, over time. The report published online by The Lancet studied 500 children in Singapore to determine the association between screen time and activity.
The findings of the survey are not surprising – excessive screen viewing has been said to affect cognitive health, academic performance, social interactions and overall health of children, thereby impairing healthy growth and development of the child. This is also because screen time tends to eat into time that could be spent on something more active, such as playing outside the house, reading books, studying, socialising with friends offline or spending time with family.
How excessive screen time hurts
A report released by the World Health Organisation in 2019 concluded that, globally, the lack of physical activity contributed to more than five million deaths annually. As per the WHO, children under the age of five should not be exposed to more than one hour of screen time. Rather, parents should ensure that children have more time for active play and better quality sleep. Further, too much of screen time has also been linked with numerous problems such as:
Attention problem: Scientists have warned that children aged three and five, who are exposed to more than two hours of screen time a day are at a greater risk of developing behavioural issues than those who spent less time in front of the screen. A study conducted by scientists from University of Alberta in Canada, which investigated the impact that screen time had, found out that children spent an average of 1.5 hours in front of a screen when they were three years old, while the recommended screen time for children that age is one hour, as per the Canadian Pediatric Society. Studies have also shown that when children are exposed to a lot of fast-moving images, that quickly changes from scene to scene, they may end up having troubles focusing.
Encourage aggressive behaviour: Children, especially the younger ones, tend to emulate things they see around them. Hence, if exposed to violent material such as those in video games or on television, chances of displaying aggressive behaviour is higher. A study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science also revealed higher rates of depression and suicidal tendencies in adolescents who spent more time on new media than those who did non-screen activities such as play a sport, socialise with friends, read print media or do their homework.
Reduced physical activity: As per WHO guidelines on physical activity, sedentary lifestyle and sleep patterns of children under five, children should spend less time seated and have more active playtime if they are to grow up healthy. An increase in screen time has also been associated with reduced physical activity and an increase in obesity risk in children. On the contrary, quality sedentary time that is associated with non-screen activities such as reading a book, solving puzzles, storytelling or singing, is important for the child’s development.
Affects grades: An analysis conducted by JAMA Pediatrics on dozens of previous studies correlating screen time with academics, has found an increase in watching television to be associated with lower language skills, mathematics skills and composite test scores. The study further said that the child’s average daily time spent on-screen increased form 53 minutes at the age of 12 months to more than 150 minutes at the age of three.
Poor eyesight: Worldwide, studies have proven that a rapid increase in short-sightedness, or myopia, can be attributed to too much time spent on electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc which produce blue light, that increases the risk of macular degeneration.
Affects brain development: A study conducted by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has shown that as per MRI scans, young children who view television for more than the recommended limit of one hour, without parental involvement, may have lower levels of development in the areas of the brain which are linked with literacy, language and cognitive skills.
How can you reduce screen time?
Here are some tips that you can follow to ensure that screen time is kept to a minimum without too much of fuss:
Show the way: You can’t expect your child to follow screen time rules if they see that you are always on your smartphone or glued to the television. If your child sees you reading a book or engaging in physical activity, instead, chances of them mirroring your behaviour are much higher.
Schedule screen time: Introduce screen times and durations so that your child knows when she is allowed to watch TV/use a digital device. This works well with my kid who knows that he gets an hour of screen time (TV only as smartphones are strictly out of bounds) in the evening before going down to play. This becomes a bit tricky on the weekends where there is more time in hand, however. We have relaxed weekend rules a bit, and he is allowed to watch television twice for 45 minutes each, totalling approximately 1.5 hours a day.
Get them busy: Children gravitate towards digital devices when they feel bored. Hence, the best way to keep them away from watching too much television or getting glued on to a screen is by keeping them busy. If they are younger children, take them to the park, schedule play dates with friends, play with them, read to them, or if they are older you can enrol them in hobby classes or sports.
Independent play/reading time: While group play and spending time with your child is necessary, it is equally important to encourage your child to play independently as well. This allows them to explore things on their own, use their imagination and be creative in ways that screen time would not allow them to. You can also give your children cardboard boxes, paper, rolls and other art and junk items which then will help them build things. It also teaches them the concept of recycling.
Set boundaries: Designate areas in the house where screens are not allowed - for example, the bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas are strictly out of bounds for digital devices. Also, enforce a no-device rule while having food, at least during the weekdays. My son is allowed a Sunday cheat day when he gets to watch television and eat food. He knows that if he asks on the other days, the answer is bound to be a no.
Limiting your child’s screen time may be quite difficult in the beginning, especially if they have been used to a more lenient set up. But the sooner you start restricting screen time, the easier it would be to keep children off excessive digital use as they grow up.