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Cut down on your screen time

September 23, 2017


Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Kids today are smart enough to know how to use a smartphone and iPad before they know how to take their first step or hold a pencil. But as they grow a little older, do they remain as smart as they should — physically, mentally and physiologically?

I am afraid not, too much and too early exposure to gadgets, screens and all kinds of video games is affecting children in all kinds of ways, and many of the effects are adverse and seen for the first time in kids. These affects are so noticeable and serious that medical practitioners and researchers are identifying new conditions and syndromes in children, such as electronic screen syndrome (ESS), Computer Vision Syndrome and “internet use disorder” (IUD), along with more familiar issues such as obesity, depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit, autism, bipolar disorder, psychosis and problematic child behaviour.

disorder” (IUD), along with more familiar issues such as obesity, depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit, autism, bipolar disorder, psychosis and problematic child behaviour.

The American Academy of Paediatrics estimates that ‘the average child spends seven hours of their day looking at a screen, be it a video game, computer, cell phone or television’.

Don’t shrug this off as a boring lecture by an adult and keep the magazine down to get back to one of the screens in your home. Read on, it will take a few more minutes but will do you a world of good — just like a caution or scolding from your mother, which isn’t pleasant to hear, but you know it is in your best interest.

We are going to talk about the effects of screen time and you owe it to yourself to read on and be informed — at least know what can go wrong so that you can spot the red flags and ration your screen usage yourself.

Brain development interference

Our brain develops rapidly till the age of 21, and between 0 and 2 years, an infant’s brain triples in size! This early brain development is determined by environmental stimuli, or lack of it.

According to a report by Dr Cris Rowan, a paediatric occupational therapist and author, “Stimulation to a developing brain caused by overexposure to technologies (cell phones, internet, iPads, TV), has been shown to be associated with executive functioning and attention deficit, cognitive delays, impaired learning, increased impulsivity and decreased ability to self-regulate, eg tantrums.”

Researchers have also found that the frontal lobe — the part of the brain which is responsible for the child’s attention span, controlling emotions and empathic skills — becomes somewhat retarded due to too much screen time.


Many of you, and adults too, find yourself getting bored if there is no internet connectivity or cable TV keeping a screen alive to occupy you. You start feeling restless and moody. This is the effect of addiction to screens.

Dr Rowan explains, “Too much screen time creates notable changes in brain chemistry - most notably, in the release of dopamine, a neurochemical also known as the pleasure chemical.”

When playing a video game, as you progress in the game’s levels and gain points and awards, you feel pleased as the brain releases dopamine every time you ‘win’. So when not playing the game, you are likely to start feeling down and deprived due to the lack of this pleasure chemical in your body. Then you start craving fro the pleasure of playing the games again. This can lead to serious trouble later on as a person can become addicted to other kinds of things too.

Delayed development

When a child simply looks at a ball rolling across a tablet screen, it is a two dimensional process. But when playing with a real ball, the child experiences three dimensions that can never be replaced by what is happening on a screen. Movement enhances attention and learning ability. Due to this reason and more, it is seen that technology use can result in delayed development as it restricts movement.

According to other research findings cited by Dr Rowan in her report on the effects of screen time on children, “One in three children now enter school developmentally delayed, negatively impacting literacy and academic achievement (HELP EDI Maps 2013). (Ratey 2008). Use of technology under the age of 12 years is detrimental to child development and learning (Rowan 2010).”

Letting toddlers and very young kids watch too much TV or their tablet screens can also delay their speaking and language skills. Children learn language best by interaction and being talked to, from the speaker’s the facial expressions and body language and hearing the tone of voice. This full experience can’t be replaced by what they see and hear on a screen.

Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Attention and mental disorders

In a report published by Psychology Today, a large study conducted by Iowa State University followed over a thousand children for 13 months and examined television and video game habits (separately and together). They found that, “screen-time was associated with subsequent attention problems for both television and video games, and, importantly, that children who engaged in more than two hours of daily screen-time were indeed at higher risk for developing attention problems.”

An increase in attention deficit disorder, anxiety, attachment disorder, autism and problematic child behaviour in children is also being attributed to technology overuse.

The action on a screen — be it that of a TV, smartphone, computer or tablet — moves at high speed media which, according to Dr Rowan’s report, “contribute to attention deficit, as well as decreased concentration and memory, due to the brain pruning neuronal tracks to the frontal cortex (Christakis 2004, Small 2008).”

Doctors have identified a condition that they call “electronic screen syndrome (ESS)” that causes sleep deprivation, social isolation, behaviour problems and a hyper aroused nervous system. Children are as prone to it as adults are.

Childhood obesity

Too much screen time is preventing kids, and adults too, from leading an active lifestyle by playing sports, being outdoors, reading and interacting with others.

You can spend hours lying in your bed or slumped on a sofa playing a video game, watching TV or a screen. Your body is not being exercised like when you ride your bike or play sports. And the commercials for drinks, candy and fast food makes you want to eat, so you often end up munching or drinking something. All this only leads to weight gain, that in turn leads to other health problems.

According to the findings of Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US, 30 per cent of children with obesity will develop diabetes. There are lots of studies that show that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for a child’s or teen’s physical health. One study shows that watching more than two hours of TV a day led to poor physical fitness, lower self-esteem and poorer academic achievement.

Sleep deprivation

Studies have found consistent evidence that sleep is hampered by screen time, mainly due to shortened sleep duration and a delay in going to bed. This is true for both children and adults.

Sleep is an essential for our development and wellbeing as it improves learning, memory and our health generally. By watching television or using computers, mobile phones and other electronic mobile devices, we delay the time we go to bed and, consequently, we have a shorter overall duration of sleep.

Spending more time watching screen may be affecting sleep by reducing the time spent doing other activities, such as exercise, that is beneficial for sleep and sleep regulation. In addition, the content of the screen time, such as exciting video games, dramatic or scary television shows, or even stimulating phone conversations, engage the brain and make it more difficult to fall asleep or maintain sleep.

Experts also believe that the light that these devices emit may also be responsible for poorer sleep as exposure to these light emissions before sleep can increase alertness.

According to a 2012 study at Boston College, “75 percent of children aged 9 and 10 years are sleep deprived to the extent that their grades are detrimentally impacted.”


Many video games have violent content and seemingly harmless games on mobile phones are all about attacks, combats, killings, weapons and what not. The language and storylines are also not appropriate for youngsters, however, children are exposed to it on regular basis and parents also seem unconcerned.

But concerned we should all be because Dr Rowan discloses, “The US has categorised media violence as a Public Health Risk due to causal impact on child aggression (Huesmann 2007).”

Recommended screen-time

There have been enough studies conducted to show the adverse effects of screen time on both children and adults, and the American Academy of Paediatrics and the Canadian Society of Paediatrics have made recommendations based upon these findings: “Infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010).”

There are many advantages of technology and screen time isn’t bad in itself, but too much of anything is bad, so there needs to be a limit. And we are the only ones who can limit our own usage.

So cut down on your screen time — now!

Tips to reduce screen time

• Keep TV set and internet-connected devices out of the bedroom — this includes iPads, tablets and smartphones. This would eliminate the majority of screen-related issues and help in sleeping well for everyone.

• Limit the amount of total entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours per day. If a child is experiencing attention, learning, mood, social or behavioural issues, this limit should be increased, especially on weekdays.

• Match each hour of screen time with an hour of physical activity, or better still, an hour of physical activity is rewarded by an hour of screen time.

• Discourage screen media exposure for children less than two years of age.

• Monitor what websites and social media is being used. This monitoring becomes easy when the computer, TV or gadgets are used only in “family zones” of the house.

• Avoid purchasing more devices than you need, and get rid of “extras.”

• Sit and watch TV, movies and videos with an adult. Or better still, make it a rule that if there is a show that you cannot watch with an adult, you will not watch it at all. Watch shows that make you feel happy and good about yourself. Also talk to your parents about what you see on television or online, and how it makes you feel.

• In the evening, take a break from the screen and do something else that you like, such as going outside to play, reading, chatting or drawing.

• Turn off all screens at least a couple of hours before you go to bed. Do something relaxing to calm down at bedtime, like reading a book or chatting with siblings.

• Do not eat while you watch TV or another screen. If you have to eat, put the snack in a small bowl so that you don’t overeat.

• When playing a video game or watching a screen, take breaks every 20 minutes to get up and move, stretch your neck and fingers, and blink your eyes.— AK

Published in Dawn, Young World September 23rd, 2017