Why children need screen-free zones at home

The study found that bedroom TV led to screen exposure, displacing social interaction that provides stimulation for cognitive (brain), motor (movement), and emotional growth and development, which affects physical growth, brain plasticity, and socio-emotional intelligence.

Even without the violent footage and near-hysterical television anchors declaring war every minute, watching television for more than an hour every day affects the physical and mental health of children, studies show. 

Having a television in a private space like the children's bedroom amplifies the damage and affects their growth and development over the long term, say researchers. 

With the increasing portability of digital devices, including tablets and smartphones, and the constant switching from one device to another, children are spending an increasing amount of their waking time sitting indoors, often inactive and alone. 

While too much screen time affects sleep and relationships with friends and family among adults, it affects children's growth and development more insidiously. Children with a television in a private space like the bedroom are more likely to be overweight, have unhealthy diets, be less social and have higher emotional distress, including depressive symptoms, victimisation and physical aggression, said a study published in the journal, Paediatric Research

For the study, researchers in Canada studied 1,859 children with a bedroom TV at the neuro-developmentally critical preschool age of four, and followed them till age 13, when they measured predictors of physical and mental health in adulthood, including weight for height, unhealthy junk food intake, emotional stress, including depression, and social adaptation, including social isolation, aggression and bullying. 

Social isolation 

The study found that bedroom TV led to screen exposure, displacing social interaction that provides stimulation for cognitive (brain), motor (movement), and emotional growth and development, which affects physical growth, brain plasticity, and socio-emotional intelligence. 

An earlier study in Paediatric Research had shown that watching too much television in early life lowers children's cognitive development, with every 1.2 hour increase in daily televiewing at age 29 months (2.5 years) leading to a decrease in receptive vocabulary, math skills, classroom engagement and attention, and motor scores by age 65 months (5.5 year). 

Excessive screen time creates a time debt for honing in on developmental skills by lowering interaction with the family that strengthens socio-emotional and behavioural intelligence. It limits sleep, which disrupts executive functions and socio-emotional regulation. Screen-induced isolation lowers skills to work as a group and children, found the study, with children having trouble adapting socially. They were more likely to have been bullied, insulted, pushed, shoved and teased by peers, which further hampered learning life skills from social interaction. 

Adolescents who grew up with a television in their bedroom are more likely to have low self-esteem and self-report loneliness, sadness, and negative feelings about their personal achievements, friends, physical appearance, and hope for the future, compared to children who grew up in a television-less room. Depressive symptoms that begin in childhood are likely to go into adulthood. 

Screen-free zones 

Screen-based activities, whether it is television, laptops, smartphones or tablets, increase appetite, even in the absence of junk food advertising. Eating junk food, having meals alone and not with having meals with the family leads to depression and cardiometabolic risk factors such as insulin resistance, dyslipidemia (high blood fats, like cholesterol and triglycerides), hypertension, and fat deposition in the abdomen (central adiposity), which raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease. 

Private spaces humanise the family environment into six broad ambiance characteristics, according to a study published in Perspectives of Psychological Science. For preschoolers, a bedroom is a place for restoration (sleep); kinship (togetherness); storage (clothes, books, toys), stimulation (books, crayon, puzzles, toys); intimacy (bonding with parents, siblings); and productivity (problem-solving and room-keeping). 

To ensure all-round development, parents must establish screen-free zones and screen-free areas at home, recommend paediatricians. All bedrooms must be kept free of screen devices as easy access translates to more exposure. 

The screen time should not exceed one hour of age-appropriate content from ages two to five years, and not more than two hours for school-going children. Most important of all, parents must lead by example and keep their phones away when they are spending time with their children. – The Hindustan Times/Tribune News Service

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