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  • Writer's pictureYeap Jo Wearn

Excessive screen time in children

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines screen time as time spent passively watching screen-based entertainment which includes mobile devices, computers, and television. It recommends that children younger than 2 years should have no exposure to screen time, and limits screen time to not more than 1 hour for children 2 to 5 years of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) echoes this with a similar recommendation. For children aged 6 years and older, there is no fixed number of hours but the AAP advises parents to manage their child’s screen time to what they feel is appropriate.

Globally it is estimated that children spend on average seven hours on their screens every day. Local research reported that up to two thirds of Malaysian children have at least three hours of screen time daily. Furthermore, a worrying fact is that almost 75% of Malaysian children younger than 2 years have had screen time exposure contrasting with expert recommendations.

Multiple studies conducted at different regions of the world have demonstrated the negative effects of excessive screen time on children. The more time spent on screens, the higher the impact to their developmental, physical, and psychological health.

Some of the ill effects of excessive screen time include:

Speech and learning delay

Excessive screen time causes delay in speech. Language development expands most rapidly in the first 3 years of life. Children learn best when engaging and interacting with other people who are talking to them as opposed to passive viewing on screen. Moreover, understanding the content generally does not occur until at least 2 years of age meaning the child watches the screen yet learns nothing from it. Delay in developing speech prevents effective communication by the child at home and later affects their confidence and learning skills when attending kindergarten.

Poor social skills

Screen time impairs their social maturation. It limits their opportunity and diminishes their interest in participating in daily interaction and exploring their surrounding environment. As a result, children lack empathy and reciprocal behaviour which normally involves learning from facial expressions and emotional responses from others.

Poor concentration

Children who spend more time on screens demonstrate lower concentration and perform poorer at school tasks. Unlike other activities such as reading where there is time to process the meaning of the words, the rapid images and sounds from the screen negatively affects the child’s ability to concentrate. This also prevents them from developing an active imagination and stifles their creativity.

Sleep troubles

Another important effect is disturbed sleep as a result of the blue light from screens which suppress the hormone responsible for sleep, melatonin. These children have trouble with both initiating and maintaining sleep leading to behavioural problems and poorer school performance.

Physical strain on body and eyes

Long hours spent staring at screens worsens short-sightedness. More and more children are being diagnosed with myopia needing corrective lenses. Unchecked high myopia in children has a faster rate of progression and may lead to retinal detachment, glaucoma, and cataract. These are conditions that may result in blindness or partial blindness.

Time spent on screens also means the child is leading a sedentary lifestyle lacking in physical activities. Added with snacking while watching TV and movies, the risk of obesity is much higher amongst these group of children. Also, the possibility of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes is higher in view of their unhealthy inactive lifestyle.

Gaming addiction

There has been increasing visits to child psychologists for gaming addiction. Gaming addiction has been formally recognised by the WHO as a mental health condition. It is different from normal healthy enjoyment of games and include symptoms such as impaired control over gaming, increased priority and escalation of gaming despite negative consequences. A person with gaming addiction places gaming above other interests and daily activities leading to difficulties in socialising, education, or other areas of functioning. Gaming addiction is more prevalent in adolescents and older children.

With the many negative effects brought about by excessive screen time, it is important for us to take steps in limiting screen time for our children.

Keep mealtime, bedtime, and family time free from screens

Setting some household rules and discouraging use of screens during these times may help in reducing screen time in children. Children should have screen-free playtime encouraged. A daily limit or curfew may be helpful for some households.

It is equally essential for the adults to also set a good example by putting down their electronics and engaging in family relations.

Promote exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep habits

Sedentary lifestyle in childhood carries on into adulthood and with it comes the negative health effects. The WHO has guidelines recommending the following for children under 5 years:

Infants below 1 year

- Be physically active several times a day. For those not yet mobile, this includes at least 30 minutes in prone position (tummy time) spread throughout the day while awake.

- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (prams/ high chairs/ carriers)

- Screen time is not recommended

- Have 14-17 hours of sleep (0-3 months old) or 12-16 hours (4-11 months old) daily

Children 1-2 years

- Spend at least 180 minutes daily in a variety of physical activities

- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time

- Screen time not recommended for below 2 years old. For those aged 2 years, screen time should be not more than 1 hour, less is better

- Have 11-14 hours of sleep including naps

Children 3-4 years

- Spend at least 180 minutes daily in a variety of physical activities

- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time

- Screen time should not be more than 1 hour, less is better

- Have 10-13 hours of sleep including naps

Join the child in their shows and games

Preview shows and games before allowing your child to view or play with them. Parental controls can help block or filter inappropriate content. To ensure quality screen time, it may be best to watch or play together with your child. This may allow you not only to choose appropriate content but also enables the chance to discuss what is being watched and properly educate regarding advertising. Interactive options that promote thinking may be a better choice as compared to passive viewing and swiping.

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