Your child’s deadliest frenemy

May 22 2016


Photos by White Star
Photos by White Star

Sara*, a mother of a three-year-old, would often give her son an iPad to use but didn’t realise how much it was affecting his mood. “I noticed that my son was becoming extremely fidgety, moody and prone to frequent tantrums, but I thought that it was a phase,” she says.

Soon after, however, the iPad at home broke down and wasn’t fixed for a while; Sara says she noticed a radical change in her child’s behaviour within a week. “He was sleeping better, eating better, finally appreciating the mountain of toys that lay around him and generally became a much more congenial child,” she points out.

Many parents like Sara often give children electronic gadgets to play with, and indeed, if you are a parent or know one, there’s no denying the fact that children today are surrounded by and frequently use all kinds of electronic devices, from personal computers and laptops to handheld video games, tablets and smartphones, etc. Some would even say this use borders on addiction.

And such an addiction to electronic gadgets can negatively impact the social development of children. According to research conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), children who frequently use screen-based devices fail to develop basic social skills. They are unable to communicate effectively in person and seek the comfort of a screen barrier. Neither do they display adequate facial expressions, nor do they recognise them on other people.

As more research and studies such as UCLA’s show the negative effects of children having so much screen time, the need to reduce the use of electronic gadgets becomes all the more urgent. Parents, however, often become complacent about this and even encourage it as a way of keeping up with the progressing world. In certain cases, parents rely heavily on these devices to ‘babysit’ the children while they take care of errands or work.

Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that frequent use of electronic gadgets by

children can affect their social and mental development

Though timely introduction of all gadgets is a good idea, problems occur when too much is made accessible too early with little or no monitoring. Shazia Umar, a psychotherapist who works closely with school children, says, “Screens are like sugar. If you actively encourage a child to find comfort in screens, (s)he will grow up conditioned to this thought process and will develop a feeling of incompetency in its absence, just like children who are fed a lot of sugar in early years develop sugar cravings as they grow older.”

She suggests that if a toddler is upset, then instead of resorting to the most convenient solution of using a readily available smartphone or tablet to pacify the child, one should try other options such as outdoor play, creative work, art activities, books, etc.

When children see their parents constantly immersed in their phones and other electronic gadgets, they fill the void of the parents’ mental absence by occupying themselves with video games or television shows. This helps the children ignore the feeling of loneliness and need for companionship, which has devastating repercussions towards the children building meaningful relationships later in life.

Children’s tendency to use electronic gadgets can also stem from looking up to their parents as role models and the need to emulate them. As a mother of a five-year-old, Fatima* recalls, “My son once proudly announced ‘I am going to grow up like Baba and then I can use the phone all day long’. That was the moment I realised that we were giving our children such wrong goals.”

Doctors recommend that children should not be exposed to any electronic gadgets at least until the age of seven years. And when they are allowed screen time, it must be monitored for content, duration, pace of movement and noise. While watching programmes or playing video games with excessively fast-moving objects and high pitched sounds, the brain becomes attuned to rapid action — this can cause behavioural problems, and make them hyper.

Though timely introduction of all gadgets is a good idea, problems occur when too much is made accessible too early with little or no monitoring.

A study published in Psychology Today shows that many children’s cognitive development is hindered, which causes inefficient information processing, increased sensitivity to rewards and insensitivity to loss, and abnormal spontaneous brain activity, which is associated with poor task performance.

Natasha*, mother of a six-year-old boy says, “My son spends about three hours per day in front of the screen and I have recently noticed that his concentration span is diminishing. It is a major red flag and currently I am working towards involving him in other activities as well in order to reduce his screen time without it seeming like a punishment.”

Extremely dire consequences can go the extent of Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning disabilities. Maliha Latif, a child psychologist based in Lahore, narrates incidences of parents who complain that their child can spend hours in front of the computer screen but is unable to concentrate on academics.

According to her, “The reason for most such cases is the fact that children’s minds are so overstimulated by flashy sounds and colours that objects in real life are unable to grasp their attention because of their apparent lack of mental stimulation.”

The electronic gadgets-oriented routine is also blamed by experts for the rise in obesity in children. The more inclined they are towards entertainment within their palms, the less physical activity they engage in. This further leads to unhealthy weight gain, obesity and laziness.

The increasing use of screen gadgets in children may border on addiction
The increasing use of screen gadgets in children may border on addiction

According to Masooma Kizilbash, a Karachi-based child psychologist, “When children develop an obsession with screen gadgets, the concept of physical activity for entertainment takes a backseat. Moreover, mindless snacking while watching television is another peril that goes unnoticed. All of this leads to unhealthy children … serious health problems in their teenage years, and later on in their adult lives.”

The urgent need to curb the use of electronic gadgets by children is a result of lack of awareness regarding how to handle it, particularly in toddlers and children, and has led to a lack of limitations. If from the beginning, parents realise that it is something age-appropriate and children should only be given access to it under close monitoring, then the problems pertinent to breaking such habits would not be common.

Contrary to popular beliefs, children understand boundaries if they are instilled from the very beginning, and if there is consistency in implementation. If a child is promised half an hour of video games at a certain age, then allow them to look forward to some treat or reward (say a birthday) and make sure that promise is kept. This allows the child to value the privilege and avoid overindulgence in an unhealthy activity.

Hamza, a father of three children between the ages of one and six, says that his children are allowed screen time in instances when he and his wife need some space as they are a working couple. However, they are very careful not to let this become a habit and often restrict their use so that neither do they become overly dependent on the gadgets for parenting ease, nor do the children develop a habit of being only with their own selves and the phone.

While we cannot and should not deprive our children access to technology, it is essential that as adults we first learn to use it responsibly so that children around us have favourable role models to look up to. We will be able to control their usage up to a certain age, but if we equip them with the right principles, we can find comfort in the fact that they will make wiser decisions as older children and future adults.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine May 22nd, 2016