PETALING JAYA: Experts are warning against excessive screen time for children, especially during the movement control order (MCO), which has driven children indoors to spend long hours on digital devices.
Excessive screen time can bring about problems in small children such as speech delay, short attention span and sleep impairment, said senior consultant pediatrician Datuk Dr Amar-Singh HSS.
For children between the ages of up to two years old, Dr Amar recommended no screen time be given at all, while for those ages after two years old until five years old, one hour of screen time daily with parental guidance and interaction would suffice.
For children aged after five years old to nine years old, Dr Amar recommended up to between two to three hours a day as screen time at this age can aid in their education.
“Excessive screen time in early childhood is what we’re most worried about as the development of young children may be damaged.
“If a child is under two or three years of age and gets a lot of screen time and not enough human time, then obviously the language development will be damaged and result in speech impairment.
“Also, a lot of things that young children consume on digital devices are very fast moving such as cartoons but this actually reduces children’s attention span and makes them hard to manage as they will constantly require stimulation, ” said Dr Amar when contacted.
Screen time for children before bedtime also spells trouble, as research have shown that their sleep will be impaired, said Dr Amar.
Psychiatrist Assoc Prof Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan said there must be a variety of activities for children because excessive screen time can result in physical issues too such as posture, back pain and vision problems.
“There have been cases of children getting cross-eyed and losing their eyesight in different ways due to too much screen time.
“Their backbone and posture will also be affected by excessive screen time and they will develop back and neck pain at a young age, ” said the psychology programme director at Taylor’s University.
Dr Anasuya added that parents who allow their children over-dependence of screen time during the MCO will have a hard time cutting off their habits, as the children will be too tied up with their devices in the end.
Another dark side of screen time are online predators, said Dr Anasuya, in urging parents to supervise children closely and keep track of who they were interacting with online.
“It can’t be a one-off monitoring, it must be done intermittently, ” she said, adding that parents must take note of very sudden behavioural changes in children during the MCO, especially under the age of 10, as this can signal mental distress.
KIN & KIDS Marriage, Family and Child Therapy Center director Charis Wong said the psychological impact of the MCO on children depended on a variable of mediating factors that different children faced, including the size of their homes and their family relationship.
For example, single children are likely to experience loneliness compared to those with siblings while it can be more challenging for children with special needs such as autism due to losing the special care and support from their school.
Children from troubled homes and children living with predators or potential predators, who are victims or at risk of becoming victims, were ones significantly impacted by the MCO, said Wong.
She also advised parents to look out for tell-tale signs of emotional distress in children during the MCO which can be in the form of increased behavioural problems, the exacerbation of pre-existing problems and withdrawal or change in normal behaviours.
“Children who have parents and caregivers who are able to provide emotional and physical support to their children, and engage in meaningful conversations and activities have the best cushion from the negative impact of the MCO during these few months.
“Engage in stimulating hobbies, many families are baking and cooking together trying a new recipe, planting vegetables, exercising together and playing board games, ” Wong said.
The Malaysian Mental Health Association president Prof Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said young children in emotional distress during the MCO might show irritability, exhibit temper tantrums or try to vie for excessive attention to them and might have sleep problems due to disruption of normal routine.
“Additionally, older children between ages of six and 12 can easily sense the anxiety exhibited by adults and might be preoccupied by thoughts of doom, leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
“Young teenagers may keep to themselves and ironically may further withdraw from others in the family and be engrossed with their digital devices in trying to cope with the MCO.
“This age group is most likely to exhibit sleep disturbances due to change in routine as well as anxiety of thinking of the uncertainty of the situation, ” Dr Mohanraj explained.
To minimise long term psychological impacts of the MCO on children, he recommended maintaining a schedule mimicking normalcy wherever possible, such as making children wake up on time, sticking to a study schedule and connecting with their friends online.
“Parents should be as honest as possible of the situation with their children and not assume that their children are not anxious of the future or their safety just like adults, ” he said.
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