Don’t be proud of your toddlers’ phone skills

In March 2016, Clouds-Media, 2016 reported that in a survey of more than 31,000 children from private and public schools in the UAE showed a high home access to the Internet of 91.7%.

Results showed that children used social media mainly for keeping contact with friends and family and for learning purposes.

“The new communication revolution has effected a major change in the culture and lifestyle of people, particularly of the youth. Many of the prevailing problems afflicting the youth – such as introversion, social isolation, Internet addiction, poor performance at schools, and the acquisition of bad habits and values, such as violence and criminal behavior – are a direct consequence of the big change that has struck our social culture.”

The report added that “sophisticated devices, such as ‘iPad,’ pose a new challenge to Emirati families as they remain in the hands of children and are a matter of concern for many parents. Some complain that iPad has stolen their kids from them as these devices divert them from their daily studies, completing their homework, and even from communicating with the rest of the family.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Poojashivam Jaitly recounts the case. At the capital’s Moolchand hospital, she was approached by parents of a 10-year-old who spent 4-5 hours every day playing games on the mobile phone. Things got ugly when they took his device away. “He started to throw things in anger, and got verbally abusive with the parents. He is otherwise a bright boy with a high IQ,” she says.

Like Jaitly, several medical professionals across India are worried about how addiction to mobile devices among pre-teens is fast becoming a wider social and health problem. Addicted to games or something else that catches their fancy, such young addicts neglect personal hygiene, avoid food and become easily aggressive and irritable.

On Sunday, iPhone and iPod co-creator Tony Fadell spoke out against device addiction on Twitter, asking Silicon Valley companies to help control screen time for both children and adults.

It starts young and often, parents unaware of the lurking danger become part of the problem. Pre-teens, even toddlers today, are exposed to screens much more than ever before. Parents of an 11-year old boy brought him to Bengaluru-based technology de-addiction centre Services for Healthy Use of Technology (Shut Clinic). They admitted he had been exposed to mobile games since the age of five. Hooked to Candy Crush and multiplayer online game DOTA, he spent over three hours daily in front of a screen. An only child, he had even begun missing school to make time for games.

Don’t be proud of your toddlers’ phone skills -

Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, who heads the Shut clinic, says the child and the parents are being counseled to schedule offline time. Sharma says that up until three years ago, when the clinic was established, they only got 2-3 parent queries a week for pre-teens. Now they nearly one every day.

A 2015 study from American nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 8-12 year olds spent an average of four hours and 36 minutes consuming screen media each day. Psychologist Dr Sheema Hafeez says the period could be higher in India. “Recreationally, they may spend about the same amount of time, but if one includes the computer science classes at school and other kinds of exposure, it would be higher,” she says.

Internet companies too have been cashing in on younger eyeballs. Last month, Facebook rolled out Messenger Kids, a parent-controlled messaging app for children. It isn’t yet available in India.

In 2016, YouTube launched YouTube Kids in India. Chu Chu TV, an Indian YouTube channel for toddlers, which posts nursery rhymes and other similar content, has amassed over 11.7 billion views in the last 4 years alone, making it among the top 5 most-viewed YouTube channels globally. Netflix has a dedicated “Kids” segment on its streaming service.

Reasons to hand over phones or tablets to children vary. For very young ones, say 2-4 year-olds, they are used as tools of distraction to make them stay put in one place as parents finish errands or feed them. For those between 6-12, phones help stay in touch with family when away from home for long hours, says Ria Yadav, a school counsellor at DPS Ghaziabad.

Unsupervised usage has its perils. Delhi-based media professional Harshita Desai (name changed) says her 5-year-old nephew downloads apps and games all by himself on the shared family iPad, often running up a bill on his father’s credit card. “His parents don’t think this is an issue,” she says. Desai’s nephew is no exception. “Parents often tell me with great pride that their child can find and play a YouTube video on their own. That is a problem,” says Jaitly, citing the case of a four-andhalf year old patient who pulled at a classmate’s underclothes. The child would watch videos unsupervised on parents’ phones.

Ritu Chaudhary, government block education officer in Haryana’s Sohna, says about 60% children she comes across have their own mobile device.

“Those from well-off families have smartphones. Those with limited means are more likely to have basic ones,” says Chaudhary, adding that in many private schools, kids compete over having a better phone. “You don’t see that so much in government schools,” she says.

There are some positive fall-outs too.

Hafeez has found that using mobile gadgets improved some skills in 4-12 year-olds, like decision-making and visual tracking of objects. But excessive use impaired social and linguistic skills.

How much screen-time, then, is too much screen-time? Sharma says there is no empirical evidence yet to prescribe a permissible amount. “But it should not interfere with a child’s sleep, eating habits, or social relationships,” he says.

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