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Mental Health‘Unfettered screen use for children is becoming normalized’

It was a concern for parents before the pandemic and it’s only gotten more paramount: what are the dangers of children and young people being brought up on a diet ever-increasing screen-use and passive, digital content consumption? The reality is that the rapid increase in screen use during the pandemic continues, and runs the risk of causing a surge in mental health conditions in young people, according to Dr Ateeq Qureshi, a psychiatrist from the...
livehealthymag.comMay 31, 202214 min
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It was a concern for parents before the pandemic and it’s only gotten more paramount: what are the dangers of children and young people being brought up on a diet ever-increasing screen-use and passive, digital content consumption?

The reality is that the rapid increase in screen use during the pandemic continues, and runs the risk of causing a surge in mental health conditions in young people, according to Dr Ateeq Qureshi, a psychiatrist from the Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai, which has a new center in Abu Dhabi.

Those include anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms, unless families develop ways and ways and means of managing screen time.

While the rapid evolution of digital technology over the last two decades has made it hard to accurately predict the mental health dangers, Dr Ateeq believes there is enough evidence to prove a correlation between increased screen time and several emotional and mental health difficulties.

“Learning, memory and cognitive abilities can be adversely affected by excessive screen use,” she explains. “There is reduced creativity — most parents these days face the complaint from their children that they are bored when their digital devices are taken away for even brief times. But boredom is not a bad thing; exploration, experimentation and creativity spring from the space where boredom exists.”

Efforts to move away from screens are difficult, as both school and social lives are demanding attention. That puts the brain in a constant state of activity and often results in stress.

“The big threat is that parents will become so inured to the pervasiveness of screens in their children’s lives that they give up any attempt to control or manage it,” warns Dr Ateeq.

He sees many young patients who admit to playing video games on average for 6 to 7 hours per day and see no harm in it.

“My biggest worry as the pandemic has progressed is how unrestricted and unfettered screen use is becoming normalized,” says Dr Ateeq. “Screen use has become so prevalent that it is very hard, sometimes impossible for parents to put limits on or monitor usage.”

While we all have to accept the fact that screens have become integrated into our lives and often bring immense benefits — home-learning, maintaining contact with families and friends, encouraging mental resilience and even the ability to engage in doctors’ appointments from the comfort of our own homes — Dr Ateeq is keen to highlight that there is an urgent need for parents to take both a qualitative and holistic approach to their child’s screen use.

“Even if post-pandemic we scale back on the use of screens, we will never go back to the old ways,” he said.

Dr Ateeq’s recommendations for a balanced approach to screen time for parents, urging them to consider the following:

  • Quantity/time of screen use: Reduce where possible and focus on content and context and its impact upon other activities.

  • Content being consumed: Passive or interactive? TV and some video games are very passive whereas there are some video games and apps which are interactive and involve thinking and engagement. High activity video games may show a stronger association with attention and hyperactivity symptoms.

  • The context: Is the child watching/playing alone or with siblings or parents?

  • How much the digital technology takes the child away from other activities, such as exercise, socialization in the real world, studies, meal times, sleep, etc. Fixation on screen time and use is not necessary if a child remains fully engaged with a balanced routine that incorporates all of the above.

While Dr Ateeq remains hopeful that we can have a different trajectory by taking a balanced, thoughtful approach, he does not underestimate the means needed to do this.

“A thoughtful approach and a lot of work is needed — including raising awareness, doing more focused research to better understand the causal links, and modifying our use of digital media in keeping with the evidence,” he said. “The problem so far has been that screens have become an integral part of our lives without us having the opportunity to develop ways and means of managing screen use healthily. This is not only about children — I am talking about adults here as well. Most of us have problematic screen use and the reason is that screen-based activities, many of them by design, are very addictive.”

Dr Ateeq’s key advice for parents:

  • Do not use the screen as a babysitter. If we want our children to stop doing something we need to be able to replace it with something else or help them find ways of replacing it with something else.

  • Parents should model the behaviour they desire from the child; they need to look at their own media and screen habits to set the tone for the family.

  • Talk to your children (if old enough) about the need for limits and monitoring. Make it a collaboration not a battle. Again, this often involves modelling the behaviour.

  • For younger children, co-viewing can protect young kids against many downsides of screen time.

  • Children under two should not have any screen time except short video calls with family and relations. Children under five should have less than an hour of recreational screen time per day. Interactive content and co-viewing is always advised.

  • Make family rules. For example, no devices or TV at least an hour before bedtime and create designated media-free places and times (such as dinner time) for all family members, including adults.

  • Continue to watch what kids watch and do online and talk to them about online bullying, sexting and other hazards.

Children need to be helped to understand the negative effects of excessive screen use. They need to be guided to alternatives and this often needs parents to spend time with them. Help them develop a structure and routine to their day which includes:

  • No screens an hour before bed, as this affects sleep quality and duration and means they will lack the deep and REM sleep crucial for processing and storing information into memory.

  • Sleep on time: school age children need 8 to 12 hours of sleep a day depending on age.

  • Regular physical exercise.

  • Regular engagement in offline social interactions: with siblings, parents, neighbors etc.

Finally, Dr Ateeq believes that schools need to implement dedicated mental health strategies for their students, specifically related to screen time/online learning.

“Schools should incorporate an awareness and educational aspect for digital learning for both students and teachers,” he says. “They need to strike a balance between screen and non-screen activities and try to make screen-based activities as interactive as possible.”

This article courtesy of The Priory Group.

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