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| 16 June, 2018

Too much screen time, now a growing paediatric issue

Gadget use interferes with sleep cycle and can lead to insomnia and behavioural problems

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Image used for illustrative purposes

Facebook launches messenger for kids Image used for illustrative purposes

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With schools mostly about to bid goodbye to kids for the summer break, most parents in the UAE must be deliberating on how to reduce their kids' screen time, as most of their time revolves around gadgets.

Even on normal days, most paediatrics complain of parents bringing children to them with symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, delayed language skills and obesity.

So how do you deal with the situation when electronic devices are a crucial part of your life?

Dr Narinder Pal Singh, specialist paediatrician, Zulekha Hospital Dubai, said: "Parents are complaining on a daily basis about excessive time spent on video games. Even infants watching cartoons will cry excessively if stopped from doing so. They even eat while watching cartoons or jingles. Children get headaches due to VDU strain (visual display unit), with a decrease in social interaction and school performance. Parents have to be firm about viewing times."

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So excess use of screen time is something that is rampant, since either you are watching a TV or you are on your laptop and when you get tired of both, you are on your smartphones. making the virtual world indispensable and inevitably putting other members of the household through a pattern of living which can prove to be harmful, as children normally follow the elders at home.

Dr Basel Zoudeh, consultant paediatric, endocrinologist, Al Tadawi Medical Centre said: "Today's children grow up immersed in digital media, which has both positive and negative effects on healthy development. Too much of screen time could be harmful. In practice, we get a lot of kids who spend hours on screen, resulting in problems such as obesity and sleep problems."

Too much time engaging in sedentary activity, such as watching TV and playing video games can be risk factor for obesity, sleep problems, the light emitted from screens interferes with sleep cycle in the brain and can lead to insomnia and behavioural problems: emotional, social, attention problems and violent behaviour, pointed out Dr Zoudeh.

Dr Dinesh Banur Onkarappa, chief of paediatrics at NMC Royal Hospital, Khalifa City, said: "We do get children with problems related to excess screen time. Many teenagers suffer from migraines and headaches from looking at a screen too much. Looking at a screen for too long can cause excess strain on the eyes and deprivation of the sleep which can aggravate migraine. Children shouldn't go on their phones when they're about to go to bed. This is a really big issue, not many parents know about it. Children are skipping school pretending to be sick just to play online games this needs to be addressed."

Further Dr Onkarappa added: "Watching cartoons and TV is a passive stimulation, it can delay language, skills in younger children. One should also be mindful about the content that is watched especially violence which can have an impact on children. Watching excess TV and playing on gadgets reduces physical activity and can also increase the risk of obesity."

Addiction to phones and screen have also turning out to be an evolving problem in teenagers and adults restricting social communications."

Kids of every age spend hours before a TV, phone or tablet which is not always a bad thing. What decides the effect of screen time in children is the kind of programme they watch and how much time they spend watching the same. Children use electronic devices for different purposes, a few being; to play video games and computer games, texting, using social media, playing hand-held games, to watch cartoons or shows and even to complete homework, points out Dr Mohamed Haseen Basha, Specialist paediatrics, Aster Clinic in Al Khail Mall.

"The American Association of Pediatrics identifies screen time as time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes. Other uses of media, such as online homework, doesn't count as screen time. Owning a smartphone or tablet has now become a common practice even with young school going children. As much as it is a relief for children that summer vacations are just around the corner, this time could be rather worrisome for parents, having to think of ways to keep their children en-gaged during the two months."

Dr Basha shares that almost all paediatricians receive cases of children getting addicted to these gadgets. In fact, children as young as six months to one year of age, who are introduced to gadgets by parents and tend to get addicted to them. Conditioning is an important aspect of childhood and this practice has to start from home at a very early age. Even toddlers need to be enforced limitations on using electronic devices, because they learn to use smartphones, tablets and TV remotes at a very early stage.

"Parents must make it a point to take time out and spend quality time watching TV with their children. Ensure that you do not allow any kind of screen time before the children go to sleep. It is also recommended to avoid watching TV/mobiles during dinner, because children cannot gauge whether they are feeling full or not. Designate areas where these devices will not be present. Remove TV sets from your child's bedroom and do not allow any kind of electronic devices like mobile phones, tablets or lap-tops in their bedroom. Encourage involvement in physical activities like playing outside, swimming etc or even reading, playing games like chess, which will keep their minds off the devices and will allow for healthier life-styles. Children follow what they see their elders doing, hence it is also essential for parents to lead by example," said Dr Basha.

Measures to reduce screen time for children

. Screen time for children younger than 2 years is not recommended

. For children aged 2 to 5 years, limit the routine or regular screen time to less than 1 hour per day.

. Ensure that sedentary screen time is not a routine part of child care for children younger than 5 years

. Maintain daily 'screen-free' times, especially for family meals and book-sharing

. Avoid screens for at least 1 hour before bedtime, given the potential for melatonin-suppressing effects

. Mitigate (reduce) the risks associated with screen time

. Be present and engaged when screens are used and, whenever possible, view along with children

. Be aware of content and prioritise educational, age-appropriate and interactive programming

. Use parenting strategies that teach self-regulation, calming and limit-setting.

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