Screens are here to stay. There is no escaping the fact that they are an integral part of our lives now. A few years ago, we were trying hard to avoid our children from using our phones. Post pandemic, we have handed over gadgets to them which have now become most parent’s nightmare.

Caregivers who visit my opd invariably request me to instruct their child to give up his/her phone or at least reduce the time of use. Children agree, but are unable to follow it up. This leads to fights, sulks and emotional blackmail. There have been some extreme cases where snatching away the phone has led the child to try and harm the parents or run away from home! Yes, these are extreme but they happened.

Both parents and children are confused about the most effective ways to use their screen time. There is so much literature and advice on the internet ( a paradox in itself) that it becomes confusing to sort. Ignorance of knowledge of internet use by the parent is sure to spell doomsday in capital letters. Hence, here’s a list of things that parents should know about their child’s screen time.

What is screen time? How much of it is healthy?

 Screen time is the amount of time spent using a device with a screen such as a smartphone, computer, television, or video game console. The concept is under significant research with related concepts in digital media use and mental health. Screen time can be of different types.

  • passive consumption which means either watching tv or listening to music where active thinking is not involved
  • interactive consumption which means that the person is playing games, browsing, learning on an interactive app
  • communicative consumption which means to involve in chatting, messaging, facetiming and video calling
  • content creation where the person is creating a video, reel, shots or podcasts

According to the guidelines of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics (IAP), children below the age of two years should not be exposed to screens at all, other than occasionally face timing or video calling their relatives. This is because social and language development of children occurs maximally during this time and any hindrance to the same may cause its delay or deviance.

 Between two to five years, screen time should not exceed one hour. For older children and adolescents, screen time should be seen as a “spill over” activity. Which means that it should be the time left over after eight to ten hours of sleep, eight hours of school work, one hour of physical activity, hobbies and meal times.If any of these activities are hampered due to the usage of gadgets, then it is time to decrease it.

Going ahead the IAP also mentions that children and young adolescents (upto 14 years) are not mentally ready to use social media platforms (as it is difficult for them to analyze the pros and cons).Different social media platforms have different permissible age for use – that is facebook, twitter, snap chat, instagram, google plus after 13 years,whatsapp 16 years, YouTube between 13- 18 years  based on parental supervision, PUBG -13 to 18 years with restricted play time & possible parental supervision, Clash of clans – 13 years and so on.

Parents, we observe, a lot of times, unconsciously aid children in increasing their screen time e.g. we hand over our phone when a toddler keeps pestering for attention when there are guests at home or festival prep to complete or an important  meeting to attend.  We use our phones as pacifiers to keep our children occupied when we continue with the motions of our lives. By the time we realize our folly, our children are already glued on for more time than necessary. 

 So, is screen time totally bad?

As in the case of any technology, it is not the tech which is problematic but our usage of it. The same goes  for screen time. We need to understand both the negatives and the positives when we navigate its use.

Let’s start with the positives.

  1. The ease with which knowledge is acquired is unimaginable. Having educational apps and the internet at the tip of your fingers are the best thing to happen to this generation. Their world view expands. They understand multiple points of view , they can listen to or watch new innovative ideas and connect with anyone across the globe. This is an advantage which we never enjoyed. They do not have to restrict themselves to the old didactic ways of absorbing information.
  2. Research done on the screen time has conclusively proved that children of the current generation have better vocabulary and learn languages easily because of it (I have a 15 year old client who is convinced that she knows Korean by binge watching dramas).
  3. Exposures to video games have been shown to increase hand eye co- ordination.
  4. Ability to connect with likeminded people online and work towards a cause. Children can get an opportunity to display their talents from the comfort of their home base by blogging, creating content on social media platforms.

On the flip side, screen time also has 

  1. Increased sedentariness leading to obesity (research shows that there are now more obese kids in India than impoverished ones), sleep disturbance, headache, eye strain, neck pain and wrist pain 
  2. Increasing  numbers of children who have succumbed to language delay, ADHD, poor empathy (when they spend more time playing video games which require them to kill or maim to win), aggression, violence, fear of missing out (FOMO), addiction to pornography, anxiety, cyber bullying, and depression.
  3. Decreased academic performance & increased learning gaps. Schools in Sweden which had gone completely digital post pandemic, have now gone back to asking their students to write in books. They felt that creativity, focus and cognitive skills had declined after typing on and listening to screens only.
  4. Increase in virtual socialization in comparison to real time  socialization has the disadvantage of not having the ability to read tone or body language which distorts perception. Hence children become vulnerable to having fake friends or become victims of cyberbullying. These children  end up befriending strangers online whose motives might not be respectable. Getting into relationships and falling in love on the basis of chatting with someone who they know only virtually may not bode well for the future. 
  5. Poor attention spans – thanks to the increase in convenience of doing online shopping,  getting information and entertainment at the click of a button, children are now used to instant gratification – this makes anything slower e.g. creating a piece of art, learning to play the instrument, thinking for long on a math problem all feel boring. 
  6. Many apps that children open with curiosity may end up inserting malware into the system which can cause personal / important information to be hacked /available to companies /organizations which can use it to alter the child’s preferences. We know how artificial intelligence(AI) can keep showing us advertisements of that particular piece of clothing which we looked up on Google a few days ago till we succumb and buy the piece. Well, children are all the more vulnerable. 

How do we decrease screen time?  

As is obvious, the negatives of increased screen time far outweigh the benefits of it. Unless we, as parents, take active steps to keep it under control, our children might get sucked into addictions which can easily spiral out of control.

How do we do it? By…  

a. Setting an example :

Children learn better by observing than listening to long drawn lectures. If we practice poor online manners or stick to our gadgets obsessively, they automatically internalize that it is ok to do so. If we stay away, then they learn the same. Working parents can discuss with their children regarding the time of internet usage and monitor whether they stick to it. Keeping family time sacred during which all gadgets should be kept away can act as good example.

 b. Setting the rules:  

Prevention is always better than cure. Most of our children already have gadgets on hand. Rather than spying on them and fighting with them – having a sensible discussion about the pros and cons, and setting rules may help control screen time. Teach your kids the concepts of digital resilience and  digital dieting.

Digital diet basically means setting the rules of consumption, just as we would do with food.  What is healthy to watch, what they like, how much to use and what is allowed. If children know that there is space for an open and honest discussion about the same, most eventually oblige. They may ask questions about why they cannot browse certain sites. Try and be as honest as possible in answering such questions. Since Adam and Eve, we have always succumbed to the temptation of the unknown and the exciting. So, explaining the reasons may  convince them into not snooping around.

Digital Resilience means being able to take the good and  the bad on the net  without giving much importance to both. For example, not being over the moon on the number of likes and not sinking into the depths of despair over one body shaming comment.

c. Teaching them good online manners.

Teach them not to post hurtful messages,  post personal information or home address, to think before typing , posting, sharing any information before confirming whether it is truthful, kind or legal, not to copy or  post without taking permission and so on.  

d. Knowing the internet : 

Before you hand over a gadget or its use, make yourself familiar with its features and apps. Play every video game once with your teenager. Create ( even if secretly) an account on the apps that your kids use – not to spy on but to know what happens there. You don’t even need to friend them online (which most of them would find “gross”). Knowledge is power, and you can protect your children before they get into trouble. Use apps like family link (available on play store), famisafe, qustodio, happinetz, safe to net and norton families to monitor time and content. 

The coming generations are going to be digital babies. They have no idea how to live without the internet. Hence it is our responsibility to help them navigate this space with care and consideration they deserve.

About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

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