Expert View

Prolonged screen time and its effects on children

Dr Ritu Chauhan,Vice President, Manipal Academy of Health and Education

By Dr Ritu Chauhan,Vice President- Academics MAHE and Principal, MIS, Bangalore

Covid is going to stay for some more time!

The above statement is disappointing but it’s a reality. Due to this current pandemic, screen time for students has increased considerably and it is unavoidable as schools are functioning online. Now how to tackle this problem and help our children to tackle this issue. For every human being, ideally 7 to 8 hours of sound sleep is recommended. If we don’t sleep properly, it badly affects our health- physically, mentally and emotionally. We follow a sleep-wake cycle which takes its cues from sunlight. We become more alert when it’s bright outside and when it becomes dark, the body produces a hormone called melatonin that induces sleepiness. When we use smartphones, tablets, computers, television screens just before our sleeping time, these devices emit short-wavelength blue light that is very similar to sunlight. This light make us more alert and it also deceives the body into thinking it’s still daytime. The body produces less melatonin in response to that and it disturbs the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

This inability to sleep or Insomnia results in depression, anxiety, irritation, mood swings  etc. More screen time for social media and online non educational activities lead to lower academic performance, cut off from the family, no exercise and no routine. Children will not be able to handle emotions and have weak immune system. Insensible eating, overeating, not eating on time will lead to obesity and other health issues. Children will get affected mentally and develop low self-esteem and can go in depression.

We as teachers, principals and parents must help them in this crisis. As a parent, we should set an example in front of our kids. As parents we need to set our screen time boundaries and lead by an example. We need to help them to set their routine. However, It’s always better to allow them to make their day schedule rather than we forcing upon them but we must set boundaries for educational and leisure screen time. For example make a point that all gadgets etc. will be switched off by 10:00 pm. We must spend some quality family time with the kids like playing a game, meditation or just discussing about their day. Make sure all lights of your house are switched off at 11:00 pm and the bedroom is cool, dark and quiet. Ideally, the bedroom should be a screen-free zone. However, it’s not always feasible to keep technology out of the bedrooms. Some children have their study tables, laptops, phones in the bedroom so make sure they turn their devices off about an hour before bedtime. Tell them that they should never check phones just before the sleeping time as it will disturb the cycle. Set the day routine for studies and other activities like playing a sport, exercise time in any form like yoga, Zumba, walk and fix the meal timings. As children are not able to go outside in this pandemic situation and definitely, we need to empathise with them. Allow them some leisure screen time like chatting with friends, social media etc. but with certain limits and guidelines. Discuss the consequences of lack of sleep and remind your child that less screen time gives them more time for socializing, family time, homework, sports, and extracurricular activities. Be aware of your teen’s technology use and tell them how to use the Internet safely and responsibly. Like there are parent control apps so as a parent we must know how much time, the child has spent on social media, YouTube etc. Accordingly we need to intervene if they cross the set limits. Ask them to change the settings and silent the message tones as it becomes a habit for us and we keep checking the phone. It keeps our mind active and alert which will lead to insomnia.

Online education is inevitable and need of an hour. Let’s frame the school/college timetable for students in such a way that they take enough breaks in between and use the break time to relax their eyes, drink water etc. Guidance and counselling sessions for parents and students by educators will surely help in creating the awareness. Schools can plan parental engagement activities through which parents will spend quality time with their children at home. More activity based and inquiry based homework and assignments to the students will keep them busy at home in a productive way and keep their leisure screen time in control. It’s our duty as teachers, principals and parents to guide the students and support them in these tough times.

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