|15 June, 2019

Tech overuse affects kids' social skills

Being overly connected can have an impact psychologically

Midsection of male and female friends using mobile phones while sitting at kitchen counter. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Midsection of male and female friends using mobile phones while sitting at kitchen counter. Image used for illustrative purpose.

Getty Images/Maskot

Today, our world is more interconnected than ever and yet this interconnectedness, while wonderful, hasn't come without a cost.

According to a psychiatrist, cases of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and lack of interest in other activities are increasing among youngsters. Children and teenagers are more immersed in their tech devices, and as a result, becoming oblivious to the world around them which is resulting in social skills deficit.

Dr Deepika Parihar, Specialist Psychiatrist at King's College Hospital London, Dubai, Jumeirah says that questions about technology use are now a routine part of her assessments. "There is growing evidence of possible links between harmful content or excessive time spent online and poor mental health," she tells Khaleej Times.

"The desire to be constantly connected can compromise attention spans in exchange for being better multi-taskers. Young people are spending hours every day using social media mainly as a substitute for real connection and are increasingly having feelings of loneliness and inadequacy," she says.

Being overly connected can have an impact psychologically, such as distraction, expectation of instant gratification, and even depression. It can also lead to poor academic performance, anxiety, low mood, and behavioural or eating disorders.

Dr Deepika says that currently most communication is accomplished through a keyboard or touch screen and kids no longer understand the basics of simple conversation, for example, maintaining eye contact or the ability to speak on the phone clearly and confidently.

She says technology can affect kids' social development by reducing their compassion and sensitivity to human relationships and closeness with their family. "Physically, technology can affect a child's growth. The more time a child spends with technology, the less time he/she is spending on physical exercise which can lead to obesity.

Technology can also lead to reduced attention span and affect their academic performance," she points out.

Screen use exposes children and young people to harmful content, which are violent or sexual in nature, as well as promoting unhealthy body image, and cyber bullying. This can have a negative impact on a child's well-being and confidence in later life which are worrying issues for the families. Besides, more screen time reduces time for positive family activities and family connections.

"When it comes to interacting with others, excessive use of technology can have a negative effect on children's communication skills and make it difficult to communicate beyond their devices," explains Dr Deepika.

"Spending too much time with devices can shorten their attention span, which can affect their listening skills when in conversation with others. Therefore, they are not truly contributing or paying attention to what is being said," she says.

"This can also impact their academic performance as they become less focused on their tasks and are not engaged in their learning. Overall, even though they might be connected with their friends online, personal relationships can begin to feel more distant as less social interaction is taking place," she adds.

In April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued new guidelines that said children under five must spend less time sitting watching screens, or restrained in prams and seats, get better quality sleep and have more time for active play if they are to grow up healthy.

The guidelines resonate in the UAE where childhood obesity will continue to rise affecting 14.62 per cent of its '20 years and under' population by 2020, according to the World Obesity Federation.

"What we really need to do is bring back play for children," Dr Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity, underlines. "This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep."

For younger children, face-to-face social interaction is essential to the development of language and other skills, and screen-based interaction is not an effective substitute for this.

"When engaged in face-to-face communication, social information is conveyed by vocal and visual cues in the context of the situation. Non-verbal communication is an important part of relationships, and this includes facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, as well as posture and personal space," says Dr Deepika.

"Asking engaging questions about others, actively listening, and being able to read other physical social cues are some skills many young people are lacking."

Dr Deepika says that strong social ties are those relationships that generally help people manage stress, which ultimately leads to better social and psychological outcomes.

"However, young people often like to use social media to communicate because it affords them more control over the interaction. Due to the increased use of technology to remain connected, the importance of physical contact has been reduced which has led to young people feeling lonely. Technology, especially today, has become a substitute for human interaction," she adds.

More research into the benefits and harmful aspects of technology use is necessary, however, until then we need to be mindful that many young people's lives are now being dominated by the online world, adds Dr Deepika.

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