SCREEN ADDICTION: AN UPSHOT THAT IS EVEN WORSE THAN OUR WORST NIGHTMARES – by Dr B. J. C. Perera
Source : island
MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)
Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
All of us know for sure, and for that matter, even the entire world is quite well-informed, of the current scenario of a supposedly bankrupt Sri Lanka that has over the last couple of years gone through arguably the most difficult time in its history. Many a catastrophe has pummelled our Motherland in waves of unparalleled regularity and unprecedented fury. These included the COVID-19 pandemic, complete disruption of education, rampant inflation, depreciation of our currency, political instability, woefully poor governance, all kinds of economic cataclysms, mass protests in the streets by the common populace, total loss of law and order, galloping inflation, non-availability of essentials, drug shortages, paucities of fuel, food insecurity, starvation of the poor and the marginalised, as well as rampant malnutrition. Although some powers that be postulate that with the International Monetary Fund Extended Fund Facility that was awarded to Sri Lanka, we will reach the light at the end of the tunnel and the splendour of a promised land in a couple of years, it seems to be empty but pompous rhetoric.
In our quest towards recovery, we will have to jump deftly over many a hurdle and overcome countless adversities that lay in our path. All of us are well aware of the possible hard times ahead. Yet for all that, many people do not realise the looming danger of a terribly undesirable demon, perhaps quite unsuspected up to now, that is lurking in the background. That fiend that is thought to practically possess an individual is screen addiction. That phenomenon comes about when there is a compulsive dependence on using far too many of all kinds of electronic screens for far too long a time during a 24-hour day. This can be by watching too much television, excessive use of Smart Mobile Phones, playing video games, constantly scrolling through social media, watching YouTube videos, or using other Smartphone Applications; conversationally referred to as ‘Apps.’ In those affected, their lives revolve around screens; very often almost totally.
Using currently available scientific evidence the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that infants under one year of age should not be exposed to any type of screens, no more than an hour for those between 1 to 2 years with preferably lesser time allowed for it and for 3 to 4 or even 5-year-olds, just one hour a day, co-viewing with parents or siblings. In many other portals, the accepted latest recommendation is to limit the recreational screen time of children 5 to 18 years with the proviso that parents be their child’s ‘media mentor’; which means teaching the children how to use these devices as a tool to create, connect, learn, and develop their personalities most positively.
Although the following numbers might shock some people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of Atlanta, Georgia, reports that the currently prevalent average daily screen time by different age groups is six hours for 8 to 10-year-olds, nine hours for 11 to 14-year-olds and seven and a half hours for 15 to 18-year-olds. These “leisure time” activities with all types of screens do not even include the time children spend on screens for their school work. However, the crux of the matter is that all these times are way over the recommended maximum amount of screen time for these ages.
In a recent study done in Sri Lanka in a sub-urban area with 340 randomly selected preschool children and published in the reputed journal BMC Pediatrics in 2022, the authors found that the vast majority, well over 50 per cent of the evaluated children were using screens for more time than the recommended time allowances.
One of the most undesirable consequences of screen addiction is that it drastically eats into the time that a child should be spending in exercise and playing, as well as time spent sleeping, all of which are essential components of growing up. The sedentary status that is an invariable accompaniment of screen addiction is a harbinger of many medical problems in later life. The undesirable effects of a sedentary lifestyle are well-known and should be taken to heart by all parents.
For years, we have been warned about the addictive and harmful impact of heavy smartphone and internet use, with physicians and brain specialists raising red flags regarding the cognitive price humans pay for unrestricted usage of these technologies. Many of us now recognise that we are addicts, often joking about it in an attempt to lessen the seriousness of this realisation. But what had been missing to drive home the fact of digital dependency, was an honest admission by those who design the technologies that such was their intended goal. This has now changed as a cadre of Information Technology (IT) Professionals recently broke their silence on the subject, revealing the subtle motivations behind the creation of some of the world’s most popular apps. Such revelations by IT professionals and social media executives confirm that their products were intentionally designed to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” As a fundamental human need and capacity, our attention is an invaluable resource for learning and reflection, which at the same time, makes us susceptible to manipulation and control. Understanding how this process works can help us avoid surrendering our minds for the profit of others and the cultural “run to the bottom.”
Research studies have also shown that being sedentary can have significant developmental consequences. The following are among them.
* Children are less likely to have the fine motor skills necessary for writing when entering kindergarten.
* Vocabulary, communication skills and eye contact are reduced.
* Developmental delays are documented with increased device use. Screen time, for instance, has been linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms.
* Attention, decision-making and cognitive control are reduced.
* Creativity also suffers. Screen time interferes with problem-solving.
* Psychiatric disorders have been reported with excessive screen usage.
* A premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, based on brain scans.
Screen addiction is a real phenomenon, and too much use can lead to health risks. From physical eye strain and increased risk for weight gain, to mental health consequences and sleep disturbances. Time spent with screen devices has tangible effects on the well-being of children. Whatever the reason, it should be clear that too much screen time poses certain health risks; both physical and mental.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology (AACAP), too much screen time in children can lead to a myriad of problems. These include:
* Sleep problems.
* Lower grades in school.
* Weight problems.
* Mood glitches.
* Poor self-image and body image issues.
* Fear of missing out.
Also, the AACAP warns that screen time can often take the place of other worthwhile activities, which include reading books, engaging in outdoor physical activity, and spending time with family and friends. This last one severely interferes with socialising and developing sterling qualities while growing up.
A ground-breaking study by The National Institutes of Health of the USA is looking at how screen time affects children’s brains. The study is in its infancy, but early results suggested that kids who engaged in more than two hours of daily screen time showed premature thinning of the cerebral cortex; the area of the brain responsible for processing information and controlling functions like memory, thought, and voluntary movements.
Screen addiction can have tremendous effects on the psyche and the mind of children. Many children are now brought to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics with a plethora of problems which have a direct connection with screen addiction. Many issues seem to come up when parents try to restrict the excessive usage of screens. Some children and adolescents have become withdrawn, and sometimes even violent in those circumstances. There are problems with social interaction with family members and friends and misguided behaviour patterns as a result of the addiction. In many households, restriction of “screen time” often leads to “scream time.” In many ways, screen time acts as a stimulant, not unlike cocaine, amphetamines, or caffeine. It is also quite pertinent to point out that, through a complex interaction with many brain functions, screen addiction can mimic almost all psychiatric disorders. Psychologists as well as Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists can unquestionably help in situations that lead to childhood behaviour problems which occur as a result of screen addiction.
If this trend continues it will be a disaster of monumental proportions. Screen addiction interferes with society’s total social fabric, with a telling negative influence on societal integration. We will go on to produce an unbalanced, maladjusted, intolerant, and even less intelligent Sri Lankan population in the not-too-distant future. This is the last thing we want; one which all of us need like a hole in the head. The time for action is now and action must be taken without any further delay.
I hope it is undeniably clear that screen addiction is a major problem for the future of our younger generations and our beloved Motherland. It is a plague a lot worse than anything that we have gone through so far. Hence the mesmerising title of this article should make everyone sit up and take note thereof.