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View: China is Putting Limits to Online Gaming for Kids, Indian Policymakers Must Step in Too

By: Shoba Suri

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Last Updated: September 06, 2021, 16:02 IST

There is no escaping screens today, and being restricted indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic is only making it harder for children, writes Shoba Suri. Representational photo

There is no escaping screens today, and being restricted indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic is only making it harder for children, writes Shoba Suri. Representational photo

India has seen a huge jump in screen time by 25 per cent (4.9 hours pre-COVID to 6.9 hours) during the pandemic.

Screen time refers to the amount of time a person spends watching screens, including smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, TVs and computers. Greater screen time is associated with increased sedentary behaviour and less physical activity, affects mental health and leads to sleep deprivation. There is no escaping screens today, and being restricted indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic is only making it harder for children.

Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organization had set guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age. It recommends no screen time for infants under-1, and no more than an hour for children under 5 years of age. Replacing screen time with active play and interactive activities like reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles is very important for child development.

Rapid digitalization has led more and more people, in particular younger children, addicted to online reading for long hours. This is making children inseparable from phones and digital devices, and excessive exposure is harming their vision. Multiple health risks with increasing screen time, including blindness, obesity, anxiety, and impaired performance at school and behavioural issues, have been studied.

A study to assess the screen exposure trend in children shows doubling of screen time in 0-2 years and tremendous increase in television viewing by young children. Various barriers to limiting screen time including lack of alternate activity, parent’s lack of time due to their busy schedule or unfavourable weather conditions have been cited by parents of preschool children.

Counterview: A Ban is No Cure to Internet or Gaming Addiction in Kids

How to Strike a Balance?

Understanding screen time amidst both potential benefits of screen as teaching tools and the physical and mental health drawbacks is challenging. Screen time has both pros and cons, from being a vehicle of information and learning to hindering creative thinking and social skill development. The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the role of parent’s engagement with their children while using digital media. Co-viewing and co-playing can support child’s healthy development and school readiness. Benefits including exposure to new ideas, knowledge acquisition and opportunities to access information vs the negative impact on health, exposure to inappropriate or unsafe content and compromised privacy need to be weighed. Research shows that children and teenagers need adequate sleep, physical activity, and time away from media.

Study on digital screen time effect on Chinese preschoolers, for instance, indicates damaging effect on the development. With 60 per cent of China’s minors playing online games, the recent restriction placed on online gaming although ‘strict’ is a move towards safeguarding children’s physical and mental health.

Not only young children, greater screen time among adolescents is a cause of concern too. High social and physical neighbourhood disorders like crime have been associated with increased screen time in adolescents. A study indicates a decrease in impulsive behaviour in tweens by limiting recreational screen time and promoting adequate sleep. Lancet reiterates the importance of limiting screen time and boosting healthy sleep to improve cognition in children. An hour or more of physical activity, 8 to 10 hours of sleep and recreational screen time of less than 2 hours a day are positively linked to best mental health and cognitive outcomes in children.

Policymakers Have to Step in

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way everyone interacts, and the education system forever. With schools shut worldwide, education has changed dramatically, with remote teaching through digital platform and e-learning. According to UNICEF, schools for more than 168 million children globally have completely closed for an year. This has left millions of children engaging in virtual learning, with classes and exams held over video call and assignments uploaded on web platforms. Schools are entirely accessed through the screen, exposing children to more screen time than before.

India has seen a rise in screen time by 25 per cent (4.9 hours pre-COVID to 6.9 hours) during the pandemic. A recent study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights indicates only 10 per cent children like using smartphones for online study and learning, while almost 53 per cent like using them for chatting and access to social media. The report recommends parent’s role by being role models and restricting their own screen time and encouraging social interaction with the child. About 65 per cent children are device-addicted, according to a sample survey across 30 Indian cites on the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on children’s health. The study indicates behaviour issues when told to stop using devices.

As per the recent recommendations on screen use by Indian Psychiatric Society, complete avoidance of screen for less than 2 year olds and under parental guidance for 2-5 years old besides interaction with the child is essential. Using digital media as a pacifier or to keep child engaged can lead to long-term implication of excessive usage. Excessive screen time in kids with lockdowns and closure of schools has led to lack of stimuli on interaction with peers. The Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, has come up with recommendations on screen time usage for pre-primary to Class 12 students.

The question arises, how much screen time is healthy?

It is important to look at all the aspects of screen time, time spent in learning or engaging with family to playing games and surfing the Internet. Also, educating child on the use of screen as tool in learning and context-specific access to internet is key to help children develop the habit to self¬-regulate. Finally co-viewing with parents can strengthen bond and interaction on healthy use of digital technology. There is no one-size-fits-all-approach, policymakers need to formulate recommendations to reduce screen time. At the same time parents need to set rules and routines to minimise screen time. And lastly, educators must emphasise hands-on activity and using screen creatively.

Dr Shoba Suri is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Health Initiative. She is a nutritionist with experience in community and clinical research. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:September 06, 2021, 15:38 IST
last updated:September 06, 2021, 16:02 IST
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