Is too much screen time affecting your child’s development?

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Sabrina Almeida

That our children are spending most of their waking hours on their electronic devices is not breaking news. I’ve tried for years to pry mine away from their computers and gaming devices without much success. Now they have two computer screens on their desk plus their smartphones, handheld gaming devices, tablets and what have you. Nothing I said or did to reduce their screen time has made a difference. And it sometime seems like they are getting back at me for trying to take it away.

My main concern at the time was how it would impact their vision. The younger one started wearing eyeglasses before he reached the double digits and whether excessive screen time was the cause I will never know. The optometrists always laughed in response to my query rather than offer a prognosis. The older one seems to have been born with penchant for television. It was always a challenge to pry him away from it but thankfully he didn’t need prescription eyewear till now. Whether his current eye condition is a consequence of it… remains the question.

That all this screen time comes at the expense of physical activity and increases the risk of obesity is no revelation either. It’s not just the sedentary behaviour that encourages the weight gain but the fact that an increased consumption of sugary drinks and snacks are part of the couch potato lifestyle.

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My younger son’s food habits have always been a concern with him skipping lunch (and on occasion breakfast too) throughout grade school. Now in his late teens and intent on exercising his will, he vacillates between a few healthy and ‘many’ super unhealthy options loaded with sugar and salt. Recently I noticed that he makes a meal out of snacks and pop rather than take a break from the screen to eat proper food. However, I’m powerless and can do nothing to stop it. The odd hours he keeps in university leaves little room for healthy home food adding to the problem. The only positive in all this is that he makes time to exercise.

A recent study in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health last week stated that only 1 in 20 kids south of the border (and in Canada too I’m sure) are meeting the recommended guidelines on sleep, exercise and screen time. Researchers found that children aged 8 to 11 were well over the 2-hour limit of screen time per day. In fact, at 3.6 hours, it was almost double the recommendations. (I’d say my kids were well over the suggested limit by the time they became teenagers too.) Of huge concern is its impact on important cognitive skills such as language ability, memory and task completion.

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I’ve often argued with my boys about using multiple screens and the consequences it has on their attention span. How can one watch sports on television while playing a game on the iPad and texting friends? While I understand that none of these are important tasks that are deserving of your full attention, it can be habit forming. Boredom and inability to focus are likely consequences. I’ve also talked about the link between such actions and the attention deficit disorder. Their response, of course, is to raise their eyebrows and wave me out of the room. It is not surprising therefore that scientists and educators are making a connection between constant use of mobiles from an early age to problems with attention span and addiction.

What I am extremely grateful for is that they were avid readers in grade school and that has stood them in good stead. Now they use the digital medium to read. Or listen to podcasts on various topics. I pray that this will continue.

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How screen time affects sleep is a whole new concern. It is no secret that lack of rest and sleep raises the risk of developing a host of physical and behavioural problems. In addition to light emissions from electronic devices disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm and delaying sleep, researches say exciting or provocative content can have the same effect. That’s why they recommend putting these devices to bed long before we turn in. Physical activity and exercise, on the other hand, can significantly improve sleep length and quality.

Parents have a huge challenge trying to find effective ways to rescue their kids from their dependence on electronics. We are in an age where technology is more in control of our lives than we are. And the adults are as addicted as kids. In the end the only thing that might work is reducing our own reliance on it. After all children learn from what they see you do and not what you say! -CINEWS

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