Parenting in the current era comes with its own challenges, and the pandemic has made it even tougher. “Staying online” became a necessity for the parents due to their work commitments and for children to enable them to pursue academic activities. However, what started as a necessity for kids did not take time to turn into a habit and in extreme cases, addiction. The thin line between use and misuse became quickly blurred giving birth to a new generation of computer-savvy, socially awkward and internet-addicted kids. The effect this is having on kids has long-term implications. It is taking a toll on kids’ social, mental, and physical well-being. Recently, there was news of a child being so obsessed with video games that to get his way, he shot his mother dead.
There was another case of a child who committed suicide because his mobile phone was taken away from him. Such extreme cases are but the tip of the iceberg! Many problems are very subtle and non-quantifiable. Being glued to the screen day in and day out reduces contact with society and when such kids are faced with people, they are overwhelmed and do not know how to react and respond. When they are with their gadgets, they are in their comfort zone. Due to the new-age parenting, children are not able to cope with the stress when they are out of this zone. Besides, these games are self-absorbing and also provide a lot of gratification in the form of levels and medals, so children keep going back to those again and again. It leads to an obsession with games and self-regulation is lost. Children fail to think beyond the animated world and at times it replaces reality for them resulting in familial disharmony.
The brain is actively developing and processing new information in the first five years of life. At this age, children require a lot of stimulation. This commonly happens when they hear others speaking, listen to stories and songs, engage in free play, imaginative play and have a multitude of sensorial experiences by playing outdoors. If these precious years are spent glued to the screen, brain development is hampered, and children start displaying adverse behaviours like irritability, hyperactivity and at times autistic personality. Prolonged screen time also reduces physical activity and facilitates unhealthy eating habits resulting in health problems like overweight. Childhood obesity is a new pandemic for the present generation largely contributed to lack of physical exercise and screen addiction. Childhood obesity is a forerunner of lifestyle diseases like hypertension, diabetes, polycystic ovarian disease, and dyslipidemia. In addition, excessive screen viewing results in eyestrain and weak eyesight. It also results in multiple nutrient deficiencies most commonly hypovitaminosis D.
So, what is the solution? There is no single answer for this. There is no magic bullet or a permanent solution. Children need to know their limitations and should learn self-regulation. Screen time should be restricted to 2 hours every day. Playing video games or watching TV should not be the only source of entertainment. They should be engaged in structured and unstructured physical activity daily. They should be encouraged to have friends and interact with them in person. The best way to ensure is by setting good precedence. Parents should restrict their own screen times and should not offer children TV or video games to get their own free time. Parents and children should avoid screen at least 1 hour before bedtime and recreational use of television in the bedroom.
One should be vigilant and identify early signs of screen addiction like loss of interest in other activities, thoughts pre-occupied with virtual subjects, displaying behaviours like lying to watch the screen and familial discordant. It is definitely a difficult task in the current time and age to keep a child away from the screen and requires a lot of determination from the parents, but it is not impossible and is the need of the hour.
Dr Vaidehi Dande is a child specialist and neonatologist at Symbiosis Hospital in Dadar.