Washington DC: The long Covid-19 lockdowns and the threat of health risks outside kept people isolated, holed up in their houses, and glued to their TV screens, laptops, and mobile phones in India. This sedentary lifestyle didn’t spare the children either. Even young preschoolers have started to spend more screen time—using mobile phones at an alarmingly high number of daily hours. Screen-watching among Indian preschoolers and children is much higher than the prescribed screen-watching limit set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, and the World Health Organization (WHO).
This has come to light in the latest study authored by two Indian-origin public health professors of human health behaviour at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), who say that among the Indian preschoolers surveyed, “nearly 61% of them were spending more than the prescribed limit of 60 minutes daily or about 420 minutes per week limit of a screen watching as set by top health bodies, including the WHO.”
With access to easy Internet and mobile handsets, Indian children have become the new consumer segment of mobile phones, easily making India the largest mobile user in Asia. Little do parents know that they have given a long-term health risk in the hands of their children. Some recent reports in health journals point out that children are indulging in more than 3-4 hours of screen watching daily, which is alarmingly high.
Prof Manoj Sharma, Chair of Social and Behavioral Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and Dr Kavita Batra, his colleague and Assistant Professor, Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV have done the study to highlight the alarming concern of soaring screen time rates among children in India. Talking to The Sunday Guardian, Prof Sharma said: “Parents across the globe have observed their kids spending a lot of time watching screens, including smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, TVs, and computers (these are often called Digital Candies). During the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns and school closures, parents were flexible in applying restrictions on screen time as they wanted to keep their children engaged and entertained.” The situation got worse with the closure of schools, says Dr Batra, adding, “With the school closures and subsequent transition to virtual learning, electronic devices became the central piece of day-to-day school and social activities for children.”
The study by Indian-origin authors noted that the Covid-19 pandemic possibly led to a “rapid-fire” digital stimulation among kids, which will undoubtedly result in adverse consequences coupled with unhealthy lifestyles, including physical inactivity, eating disorders, night-time snacking behaviour, sleep problems, and several others. “This underscores the need for developing appropriate interventions to initiate healthy behaviour among children,” says Prof Sharma, an expert on public and community health in the US health circuit.
Sharma and his colleagues, including Dr Batra, attempted to test the applicability of the fourth-generation theory, called the multi-theory model (MTM) of health behaviour change in reducing excessive screen time behaviour among preschoolers in India. This study found that building behavioural confidence among preschoolers and children to quit the habit of watching screens and providing alternatives in the physical environment can go a long way to curtail this habit.
Efforts must be started at an early age given the fact that children’s brains are “elastic”, meaning they can quickly adapt to changing circumstances, says Sharma, adding, “To sustain the habit, all three aspects of the, MTM, namely emotional transformation or teaching kids to convert their emotions into goals, constantly practising the change of quitting screen time, and mobilizing social support from their parents, family, friends, and others can be beneficial.”
Statistically, there is enough evidence to support that the average screen time among preschoolers in India was almost thrice the threshold screen-watching limit recommended by global health bodies. According to one study published in Indian Pediatrics, the average screen time of fewer than 2 hours daily was noted among 53% of children and nearly 37% of parents felt the excess media exposure affected their behaviour, social interaction, academic performance, and food habits of their children. In the study by Sharma and colleagues, parents of preschoolers reported 61% of them indulged in more than 420 minutes per week of screen time.
These findings point to the need of instituting effective strategies at all levels, but parents need to be the cornerstone of all endeavours. For instance, parents could set limits on screen time by prioritizing some outdoor activities with their children or giving rewards for decreasing screen time. Having a balanced screen use is critical as excessive screen time can lead to several adverse consequences. “It is critical to initiate and promote a long-term change in behaviour, especially when one is practising a particular behaviour for a longer period of time and it becomes hard to break the habit,” Dr Batra notes.
Excessive screen time among children can lead to violence and risk-taking behaviour, stunts or challenges that may inspire unsafe behaviour, watching sexual content and negative stereotypes, getting susceptible to substance use, cyberbullies and predators, and advertising aimed at children. To safeguard the children, Prof Sharma calls for “studying screen time behaviour at baseline provides an essential basis to develop appropriate interventions.”
The study by Professor Sharma and Dr Batra highlighted that building behavioural confidence among preschoolers and children to quit the habit of watching screens and providing alternatives in the physical environment can go a long way to curtail this habit. “Efforts must begin at an early age. Health interventions will require teaching kids to convert their emotions into goals, constantly practising the change of quitting screen time, and mobilizing social support from their parents, family, friends, and others can be beneficial,” added Professor Sharma.