Screen time dilemma decoded: New study explores risks and benefits of digital engagement in children; what expert says
A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour analyses previously published meta-analysis to assess benefits and risks associated with screen time for kids.
Screens and devices have taken over our world, to the extent that it isn't always possible to regulate screen time. When it comes to young children, it has always been advised to exercise caution regarding the amount of time spent on screen. Studies over the years have highlighted both positive and negative effects of screen time, but the latter has always outweighed former which calls for parents to monitor their children's unhealthy relationship with screens. A new study published in Nature Human Behaviour analyses previously published meta-analyses to assess the benefits and risks associated with screen time for children, in order to provide caregivers some valuable insights. (Also read: Experts on harmful effects of social media overuse in teens, suggest ideal screen time)
Weighing in the positives and negatives of screen time
The study found that the nature of the interaction between children and the digital screen was important to consider when seeing whether screen time is considered harmful or beneficial to the child's health.
The study noted that while certain digital interventions had positive effects on learning and education, several social media platforms can have adverse effects on mental health, particularly among younger population. The study also found associations between screen time and mental health issues, such as depression, which also aligns with the cautionary advice from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Can watching television or playing videos be beneficial?
How children get screen time can also determine whether it turns out to be useful or harmful for them. The study noted that while watching television was associated with poor learning outcomes, children who watch television with their parents and caregivers availed benefits from their screen time.
In case of video games, the study noted that negative association has been found between playing these games and educational outcomes, however certain educational video games helped in positive association with numeracy outcomes and learning motivation.
"Screens and their constant, consistent presence is a modern day reality that is undeniable. Screen time, for many, has become an intrusive part of children’s life and finding the right kind of balance is very critical. Screens cannot be eliminated given the vast requirement that currently exists for them in the lives of children. Whether it is to gain information or connect with individuals, attend classes or work on different types of projects – children do have a real and necessary requirement for screens. At the same time, screen time can provide a break in their otherwise monotonous routines. Despite, the many necessities and requirements that are fulfilled by the presence of screens, they do have their challenges that can compromise a child’s development and functioning," says Kamna Chhibber, Clinical Psychologist, Head - Mental Health, Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare.
“When screens substitute for real time interactions and impinge upon the time that children need to spend outdoors engaging in sport that leads to an impact on the child’s ability to form relationships as well as learn important life skills. It is essential that the right balance be there in how much time children spend on screens and there concurrently needs to be adult monitoring and supervision of the content they consume so that they have exposure to age appropriate content. When children consume different types of content, it is not necessary they are able to process and understand all of it. Speaking of what they see on screens and their own understanding of it is important so perspective can be provided to them to further enhance their understanding of it. It is known that too much exposure to screens can impact attention and can also affect moods. Children can also internalize behaviors displayed on media such as aggression and want to emulate what they see on screens. Parental/adult involvement thus is a must and early intervention works best if a parent notices that the child is spending too much time on screens outside of what is required for their work,” says Chhibber.
"Excessive screen time contributes to behaviour problems such as impulsivity, irritation, aggression, temper tantrums, loneliness, boredom and anxiety. Decreased outdoor activities and excessive screen time can impact child's health causing problems like obesity, body pains, lethargy, vision and hearing problems, posture and musculoskeletal issues. Also, inappropriate content can have a negative impact on child’s emotional well being which can lead to adverse effects on development, says Dr Swati Chhabra, Incharge – Child Development Centre, Yatharth Hospital, Noida Extension.
“Exposure to age appropriate content can be helpful sometimes as screens make concepts interesting for kids through auditory and visual effects. It can motivate kids to adopt healthful behaviours, such as regular exercise, healthier food choices and better sleep. Also it can be a mode of relaxation and entertainment, if used in a balanced way,” says Dr Chhabra listing one of the advantages of screen time.
Impact of screen time on brain development and mental health
“Overstimulation can lead to reduced attention span and hyperactivity. When children are exposed to screens, they’re also encountering much more stimuli than that their develop brain can handle. This sensory overload from colors, images can lead to hyperactivity thus reducing attention span,” says Dr Chhabra.
Overall, the research emphasized that both the content and the context of screen engagement play crucial roles in influencing individual outcomes. With a more careful approach, benefits from screen time can be derived under certain appropriate conditions.
So, parents must make sure children enjoy selective screen time under their supervision that also help shape their brain and personality. However, it's like watching a tight rope as excessive screen time can adversely impact brain and development in these young minds.