The relationship between humans and technology isn’t always healthy. It could destroy humans and this damage sometimes is irreversible when compared to a software malfunction or a diminishing battery life. But humans are getting addicted to hyper-reality and have started to depend on these devices for survival. Although mobile phones were restricted to the use by adults, at present children are glued to screens even before they can walk! Recent research has shown atrophy – shrinkage or loss of tissue volume in grey matter areas (areas where processing occurs) during Internet/ gaming addiction. Studies have also demonstrated the loss of white matter integrity which could lead to loss of communication within the brain while it also reduces cortical thickness in the frontal lobes of the brain.
In such a backdrop, the Health Capsule spoke to Dr. Ramani Rathnaweera, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital who shed light on the risks of excessive screen time and how children and adolescents should be discouraged from using these devices.
“Media has always been discouraged for children less than two years of age,” said Dr. Rathnaweera in her opening remarks. “This is the age during which the brain develops particularly the five senses. Although they develop inside the womb, the five senses need to be stimulated with much lively interactions once the baby is born. Parents therefore need to relate stories, play a few games, all these aiding the brain cells to flow. They can play videos with good music and children’s songs, but the excessive use of social media, mobile devices and video games should be discouraged.” said Dr. Rathnaweera.
According to the guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA) watching television has been restricted to one hour. “Therefore it’s important to limit the time they watch television and structure their day for them to learn. In Sri Lanka we have children watching TV for three or four hours. Here they select what’s best for them and parents have no control. But that shouldn’t be so. Parents should know what their children are doing. Children should learn family values, how to share with others, socialize and build relationships,” she said.
“From five years onwards they are always studying and the curricula are vast. During this period they start working in groups and are burdened with much homework that they hardly have time to watch TV. But they should be allowed to watch educational programmes and some children’s tele dramas which you think would be suitable for them,” she continued.
Today we see children using mobile devices almost everywhere. Sometimes people may wonder whether they are being rude to the other person because they are not paying attention to what is happening around them. The colours that they see on the screen take them to a different world, thereby developing an interest towards its contents.
“It’s bad manners to see them holding these devices all the time,” Dr. Rathnaweera added. “Therefore some terms and conditions must be laid out for them. As such they shouldn’t be given these devices during meal times, bed time and family activities. Research suggests that if parents read stories to their children, chances are high that children will also develop an interest in books. They are at an age when they are keen to explore. So they might take to reading as a hobby. Likewise good habits could be inculcated in them if they are given proper guidance,” she affirmed.
Risks of excessive screen time
Ergonomically speaking, holding mobile devices or working in front a screen could impose many health risks. Carpel tunnel syndrome is one of the common conditions one could be diagnosed with. With more exciting events happening on the screen, it becomes so addictive that children would want to watch more. With more time spent on these devices, children are at risk of developing the following conditions and symptoms:
“In addition to these symptoms children and teens become violent,” Dr. Rathnaweera added. “This is because they watch violent movies and play violent video games. They always want to kill the other person and win and this could have a long-term impact on the child’s brain. In addition to that there are advertisements on food items which are produced to attract children because they are always a target group. That way they not only get addicted to the devices, but they also develop a liking towards the products being advertised.” she explained.
Internet addiction during adolescence
Speaking on the continuous addiction towards Internet among adolescents, Dr. Rathnaweera said that this is because the Internet is a cheaper way of finding information. “There’s a reward/ pleasure centre in the brain that gets activated when exposed to more than six hours of screen time. With that it releases dopamine which functions as a neurotransmitter. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways; one of which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour. This develops an addiction similar to drugs, alcohol and smoking. With that parents will experience aggressive behaviour among adolescents. If their phones are taken away, they would go to the extent of leaving home. They become very stubborn, giving rise to many family issues,” she added. Dr. Rathnaweera also emphasised on another crucial characteristic in adolescence – the secretion of sex hormones. “This is also a time when they are exposed to unnatural sexual clips such as pornography. Since they are at that age of maturation, sometimes their brains would be stimulated to try out what they see in these videos. This is also linked to the fact that there are many predators on social media, trying to put young girls and boys in trouble. I have come across girls in Sri Lanka who have many friends on Facebook. Recent research suggests that 60% of the youth in Sri Lanka use mobile devices while 10% of them are having relationships with unknown people. They waste a lot of time chatting online and are quite vulnerable to be victims of cyber bullying, cyber threats and in the worst case, suicide,” she warned.
Using Internet wisely
Too much of anything is good for nothing. This applies to the Internet and the amount of time spent staring at a screen as well. “The Internet has been discovered for us to make progress,” Dr. Rathnaweera added. “Parents could in fact consider an alternative which is watching TV with their children. Here they can explain why a particular advertisement is false and why the child shouldn’t be deceived by the attractive products. As such there should be some mechanism to limit the use of Internet and keep children away from mobile devices as much as possible. Without giving them a device to keep them in one place, parents could possibly send their children for extra-curricular activities at school to keep them engaged,” said Dr. Rathnaweera.
Speaking about the interventions that are being done locally, Dr. Rathnaweera said that the first thing to be done is to structure the day of an Internet addict. “We gradually reduce it to about one hour. We discourage parents to keep TVs inside their child’s room because this gives rise to several other unhealthy behaviours. Children could be encouraged to do many creative activities such as drawing, painting, singing and dancing. In some instances parents switch off the TV while the child is watching and walk away. That is bad. They should take the child away with them, probably go on a walk or spend time with a pet. But in some cases we find that people are rather anxious to come out of this addiction. We also conduct talking therapy, psychotherapy and behaviour modification therapy and also introduce alternative ways of keeping them occupied in order to keep them away from these devices,” she concluded.
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