China, more than the rest of the world, has taken one health problem very seriously—the health issues resulting to the overuse of electronic devices by children. There, the government has even established “rehabilitation centers”, where seriously addicted teenagers are separated from all media for at least several months. This harsh “cure”— of questionable effectiveness—is not likely to be adopted elsewhere, but, first, let us see what is happening.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report in 2013 where they noted that the average child of 8 to 10 years spends 8 hours per day watching electronic media (including television, tablets, phones, and game boxes), and the average teenager, 11 hours. They did not measure the average screen time of very young children—those who are not yet talking well—and here is where the biggest damage might be occurring.
Many parents have found that giving a child a phone or tablet keeps them occupied better than anything else (some parents are relieved that the kids are not interrupting their own phone and tablet time). But the very young brain is developing quickly, and we do not yet know the long-term effects of replacing time that a young child would normally interact with his environment and with people, with the virtual world of a phone or tablet.
You can read here about brain scan studies done over the last four years in China studying internet-addicted children. These studies have shown structural changes in various parts of the brain in kids who use devices all day, but the main effects seem to be in the frontal lobe, which is important for impulse control and decision-making.
Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist says “We’re throwing screens at children all day long, giving them distractions rather than teaching them how to self-soothe, to calm themselves down”. She notes that children need to learn how to interact with others around them, and a screen is not a good substitute.
“Children need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance” concludes Dr. Steiner-Adair.
In a society that seems ever more violent, there is concern that violent video games might be one contributing factor. A study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence showed that children who play lots of violent video games are more likely to have problems at school, arguing and fighting with peers and teachers.
While still preliminary, research suggests that after lots of exposure to screen violence, they become immune to it, and more likely to engage in that sort of behavior. They may grow up with less empathy; less ability to put themselves in the shoes of others and understand why other people have different viewpoints.
What is the solution? There is no quick fix, but there are measures that parents and grandparents can take which will help, and that is the subject of our next post.
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