Excessive screen time: How bad for children?
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - May 29, 2019 - 12:00am

Is too much viewing of electronic screens bad for children? Yes, said the World Health Organization in a recent report. Yet it only partly answered the question.

Screen time was correlated with quality sleep and activity for kids less than age five. “More is better,” a WHO panel of experts noted of restful sleep and physical movement for infants to toddlers. In sedentary moments, reading and storytelling with the caregiver was preferred. “Children under five must spend less time sitting and watching screens or restrained in seats,” WHO prescribed. “They should get quality sleep and time for active play if they are to grow up healthy.”

Conversely, “less is better,” WHO said of viewing gadgets, playing videogames, and watching television. No more than one hour a day was recommended for the under-five age group. WHO frowned on more than an hour of restraint in prams, strollers, highchairs, or strapped on the caregiver’s back. For infants: zero screen time.

The WHO report jibed with earlier findings on the harm of excessive screen time. In the United States and Europe specialists have warned of “screen dependency disorder”. SDD can manifest in children as young as three to four years, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned in 2018. But those older, because leniently allowed or capable of sneaking more than one hour of screen time a day, are prone too.

Gadgets have become the first thing the child grabs on waking and the last to look at before dozing off. Watching screens and fiddling with apps at the dining table distracts from meals. Consequently affected are not only sleep and active play, but also attention, nutrition, and posture. Those lead to insomnia; back, neck and headaches; and under or overweight. Long-term adverse effects could be obesity and imbalanced diets.

Child development specialists are concerned about screen time’s replacement of human interaction. SDD affects personality. Behavioral symptoms are frequent mood swings, preference for isolation, and loneliness. Worse if anxiety, depression, and frequent agitation set in. Other adverse findings are dishonesty, stubbornness, and guilt, especially among those in pubescence. SDD has been described as an addiction, linked to previously identified Internet Addiction Disorder. So young, yet so manically afflicted with FOMO, fear of missing out.

Philippine doctors too have warned about SDD. A health undersecretary noted a high prevalence of myopia (nearsightedness) and dry eyes resulting from long screen time. Children engrossed with the glow of screens close-up are unable fully to develop distance vision, and tend to blink less. The cornea, the shiny outer layer of the eye, can be damaged too.

Pubescent and adolescent behaviorists have observed screen time’s disruption of interaction. Severely affected is basic communication (talking, listening, comprehending) and group play. Parents have tended to attribute those to normal part of growing up, and believe the child will outgrow it. Some even think it the duty of teachers to instruct and instill discipline on screen time. They are very wrong. More and more private pre- and grade schools are rejecting enrollees for un-readiness – because unable to self-express and interact.

Filipino doctors have taken note of potential “sex recession” among millennials, like in rich countries. Recent studies in Japan and the United States linked preoccupation with electronic screens to misconceptions about gender and sex. Despite openness to different sexual orientations, LGBTQs, a growing number of youths supposedly have a tendency to avoid opposite genders, dating, and young romance. That’s to the point of abstinence and escapism into even more screen time obsession.

Yet other scientists contradict the medical findings on excessive screen time. Not enough definitive studies show it, they argue about teenagers. Part of the confusion is with the very definition of “screen time”. Separate surveys in Britain and America show marked increases in gadget use in the past eight years among youngsters below 16. But undetermined was if the smartphones, tablets, and computers were being used for schoolwork, and not social networking, or games. In short, the defenders see nothing wrong with longer screen time if for academic research and group study. For them, screen time is an extension of the classroom.

Self-discipline is the prescribed alternative for teenagers. Smart students can tell if they’re overdoing screen time, so voluntarily cut social networking and video gaming. Still, these can be replaced by onscreen scholastic, intellectual pursuits.

Psychologists and sociologists say videogames are not necessarily evil. Playing games is very human and educational. Given modern technology’s predilection for convergence, game apps have been developed as means to socialize. Devoting most of one’s waking hours to games and other screen activities can lead to bad habits and health. Then again, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Larry Page are said to have honed their tech skills from games in their youth; the three still avidly play videogames.

As for myopia, some ophthalmologists theorize that the effect of book reading and screen time is the same. Nearsightedness develops from prolonged close-up work of the human eye that is suited for distance viewing. For dozens of millenniums man used eyes to scan the horizon in hunting and navigating. The eye has yet to adapt to reading, as book printing was invented only 650 years ago. And screens are the 21st-century version of books. Modern man can’t do without either.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha

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