As children get hooked to smart devices, doctors worry about health impact
When Aayansh Mukul, 3, started nursery school this year, his mother had a tough time explaining why he couldn’t take a cell phone with him. At home, the boy and his mother’s phone are virtually inseparable. He puts it down only at bed time, she says.
“It’s been like this since he was five months old. By 1 he knew how to switch it on and swipe to take calls; by 2 he was searching for cartoons on YouTube,” says his mother, Roshima, an interior designer. “I know it isn’t right but I work from home, so it helped that he was occupied.”
In a recent survey, Phillips Lighting found that over 30% of children in India spend in excess of six hours a day staring at a screen. The survey also found that 57% of Indian parents polled were worried about the impact of all this screen time on their children’s eyesight.
Of course, the impact is not restricted to their eyes. “For the first six years, because the brain is developing rapidly, it needs constructive rather than passive stimulation,” says Dr Anuja Pethe, consultant paediatrician at Mumbai’s Nanavati super-specialty hospital.
At this age, any content on a screen involves passive viewing. More than 10 minutes of exposure at a time, then, can affect the development of the brain — having an effect that is opposite to that of verbal storytelling, or showing a picture in a book for instance.
“When a child is told a story of a tree and a crow sitting on it, he or she has to imagine the tree and the bird. The picture book helps visualise but the main task of visualisation and imagination lies with the kid. The videos and images on the screen don’t allow for this development of the imagination,” Dr Pethe says.
There are two troubling trends Dr Pethe has noticed among her little patients — in addition to the extended hours reported by the Phillips survey. The average age at which kids start using screens has plummeted over the past 10 years, she says — from 3-5 years to 12-18 months. There’s also the unhealthy trend of connecting screens and meal time.
“This can lead to over-eating, because the child is so engrossed in the screen that satiety signals are blunted, and they can start to make unhealthy connections between food and entertainment,” says Dr Pethe.
Sara Basu, 33, a professor from Kolkata, has a five-year-old daughter, Toree, who has been very using a smartphone since she was two. She also watched about 3-4 hours of TV daily. Alarm bells began to go off for Sara when Toree started demanding they play videos on a smartphone while she ate.
“It began to feel like an addiction,” she says. “I slowly weaned her off TV, and curtailed her smartphone time. I realised I had been letting her watch videos so I could get work done around the house. Now, I keep track of her screen time, and avoid playing videos on my phone when she’s around too. I make it a point not to give her the phone when she asks for it.”
To make up for the deleted screen time, Sara has enrolled Toree in dance classes and spends time with her reciting poetry. “She really enjoys both activities,” Sara says.
For Mumbai marketing executive Samar Chopra, 40, the battle has just entered a new phase. His daughter is 13 and was allowed her own smartphone a year ago. “We had to give in because most kids in her class had one by then,” Chopra says.
They still try and restrict use to before school and one hour after homework. The phone is kept switched off and locked in her mother’s cupboard, because she remains busy with her homework and extra-curricular activities like tennis lessons.
At her 13th birthday party, however, they gave power banks to all her friends as return gifts. “It was my wife’s idea and it was a huge hit, but I find that quite troubling,” Chopra says. “It shows how dependent this generation is on gadgets and how much more careful we, as parents, have to be if we want them to avoid becoming addicted to their screen.”
A recent study of more than 1,000 school-going children in Delhi found that in 40% myopia progressed as a result of time spent in front of screens.
“In children, too much screen time is a risk factor for developing myopia or short-sightedness. Apart from that, too much screen time can lead to immense strain on the eyes and cause dry eyes,” says Dr Radhika Tandon, professor of ophthalmology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
In children with a genetic predisposition, too much screen time could make the myopia worse.
Part of the reason for this, studies have shown, is that people blink less when they are watching TV or playing computer games.
There are things you can do to reduce the impact. Take a break every 30 minutes and look into the distance for some time, says Dr Tandon. The Mayo Clinic calls this the 20-20-20 rule — every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
Distance between screen and face is crucial too.
“It should be at least 30 cm or an arm’s length away. In the case of very young children, their arm’s length will be less than 30 cm, so parents must ensure the device is placed far enough away,” Dr Tandon says.