When Enough Really is Enough

LAKSHMI on October 28, 2014

Parenting is a tight rope walk. A slight tilt to one side, you are too lax, and a lean to the other, you plunge into the abyss of tiger parenting. While there is no absolute definition for balanced parenting, there are some common sense rules that have guided parents through millennia, without which we would have been an extinct species. Of the numerous issues and dilemmas today’s parent faces in the course of raising a child, a relevant and important question is – how much tech-time is enough for the child.

Browsing on the boat

Tech-time can be defined as the time spent on technological/electronic devices – the non-essential ones; pacemakers, hearing aids and such life-sustaining devices are not included here because, obviously, limiting their “tech time” is not the smartest thing to do. With increasing use (or often, abuse) of electronic gadgets for daily activities, their effect on children cannot be overlooked. The good news is that it is not. Many educated parents are now concerned about the amount of “screen time” the child  enjoys, and attempt to restrict it to durations they choose based on various reasons.

This is especially true with “techie” parents who are well aware of the ill effects of long-term tech usage in terms of mental and physical health; Steve Jobs was reported to have been a low-tech parent, restricting technology times for his children, as are many technologists turning the wheels of the gadget industry. However, the “many” is still not enough; a recent study has shown that 78% of parents allegedly have “no conflict” with their children about their tech time, a number that points to either overuse of technology by parents themselves, or ignorance of the safety issues associated with technology overuse among children, or possibly both. While each parent has her own reasons to restrict tech times, there are a few compelling facts that every parent must know before introducing her child to technology.

Physical health

Apart from the obvious, much talked about health issues such as Carpel Tunnels and eye strain caused by extended screen operations, there are many subtle adverse effects on health. Whether used for educative purposes or entertainment, devices eat into physical play time and the child is often cooped inside the house, slouched on her chair, staring into the screen. A 2010 study found that the amount of non-screen playtime decreased 20% from 1997 to 2003, while screen activities (i.e., watching television, playing videogames and using the computer) increased. A child from a tech-savvy country spends on an average, 7 hours and 38 minutes on electronic gadgets, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This translates to 7 hours and 38 minutes of largely sedentary existence at an age where playing hide and seek or baseball could be burning more calories and sending more blood all over the body.

The result?  Childhood obesity. 30% of the children in the US are obese and, believe it or not, TV and video games have been reported to account for 60% of childhood obesity in Canada, a number that is likely to be true of other tech-enriched nations as well. Obesity is followed, like Mary’s little lamb, by the rest of the metabolic-syndrome-group of diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure, heart problems and cancer, that has been steadily increasing among children in recent years.

Poor sleep hygiene (insufficient sleep, delayed sleep-wake behavior, and sleep disturbances) is also a serious consequence of tech-overuse by children/adolescents. This affects both physical and mental health of children.

Mental health

Overindulgence in television and video games could deprive children of the essential connection with themselves, others, and nature, to the extent that some children even develop fear of the outdoors. But the more serious effect of tech overuse among children is the deterioration of attention span. The rate of detection of ADHD among American children has increased by 15% in the past six years, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it is too early to directly correlate this increase with the increasing use of mobile devices by children, the connection cannot be overlooked.

A research paper in Pediatrics shows that children and young adults who overdo TV and video games are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a variety of attention-span disorders. Dr. Ned Hallowell of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health, and retired professor from Harvard Medical School, calls gadget-induced attention deficit in children as “pseudo ADHD” to differentiate it from genetically derived ADHD. The good news is that pseudo ADHD is caused by behavior patterns and can be reversed by behavior modifications, aka, restriction of screen time.

Social Health

Over-existence in the virtual world obviously damages the perception of the real world.  When socialization is restricted to online hang outs, the essential human connection is broken, leading to poor social health. An experiment involving pre-teens in a “tech-free” five day camp examined the effect of face-to-face interaction on nonverbal emotion–cue recognition.  As expected, the imposed tech break significantly improved recognition of nonverbal emotion cues for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes, indicating that damage to social interaction caused by too much tech-indulgence.

It is very easy to justify screen time with the excuse that “devices can be educational”. A recent report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that as children spend more time using gadgets and screens, there is a measurable fall in educational activities.  After all, Oscar Wilde was not too far off the mark when he confessed to be able to resist everything except temptation, and what greater temptation to children than a glowing screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between the ages of 0-2 years not be exposed to any technology, including television, those in the age group of 3-5 years be restricted to one hour total technology per day, and 6-18 years be restricted to 2 hours total technology per day. This is a far cry from the running average of 7 hours 38 minutes.

That said, digital media is not quite the fire-breathing dragon all set to destroy humankind. The problem, as with anything, arises when there is injudicious excess. It is logical to believe that parental guidance is absolutely necessary in the use of electronic gadgets/devices/screen by children; indeed systematic research has shown such to be the case. Dr. Gentile and coworkers at Iowa State University have recently shown that when parents monitored and guided children through screen usage, significant improvements in physical health (body-mass-index, better sleep), mental health (grades) and emotional health (less aggression) were observed.  It is, thus, up to the parent to analyze carefully the benefits and risks of technology, vis-à-vis the nature/temperament of their wards, and limit tech time accordingly.

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Photo credit: behang / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND