The screen that teaches and spoils

The screen that teaches and spoils

Television, computer, PlayStation, iTouch, iPad and so on—our children today are familiar with all kinds of screens in their daily lives. For most urban, big-city children, these gadgets are part of an everyday culture, and their use in daily doses is mandatory. Some parents even encourage this, out of a notion that the use of such gadgets keeps children occupied and away from mischief.

For example, I will not be surprised if most Delhi parents today encourage their children to watch the Commonwealth Games on their television screens instead of attending the live action at the stadiums. As a parent, I understand their concern for safety, and the extraordinary effort that may be required to physically participate in watching these games. However, this concern is usually misconceived—most studies are clearly showing evidence that children who spend more screen time are in danger of physical and psychological harm.

This is not just about the time children spend in front of television; screen time is also means the hours spent with myriad other gadgets, whether browsing the Internet on the computer, or playing games on the PlayStation or even on mobile phones.

Of course, television is an inescapable part of our culture, and the most pervasive type of screen today. We depend on it for our daily dose of entertainment, news, education, culture, weather, sports, and even music, ever since the advent of music videos. The average child in Britain, Australia and the US watches over 14,000 hours of television up to the age of 18.

In India, children spend almost 2 hours per day watching television. Over weekends, this goes up to almost 4 hours. Increasingly, television and its role and relevance in our children’s lives are becoming critical. For example, in a 2004 study conducted by the Centre for Media Studies, one-third of 400 students—from classes VI, VII, VIII and IX across Delhi—who were interviewed, felt that television played a more important role in their lives than their teachers.

Similarly, computers are fast becoming an unavoidable part of our lives, just like television did a decade ago. Computers naturally have an advantage over television because they are more interactive, and provide the user with a far greater range of choices. We can read, talk, watch and even discuss issues with people around the world using a computer and a simple Internet connection. In fact, some say that if TV is the extension of the human eye, the Net is an extension of the human brain.

The computer as a learning tool is also turning into an electronic tutor for children, by using information and technology resources that put to use a child’s problem-solving, fact-gathering, analysis and writing skills. At schools, libraries and homes, computers are opening up new learning experiences for children —even the ones that have hitherto been shut out. Children with disabilities can now participate more fully in learning, as well as in socializing.

Despite these positive outcomes, the evidence on the pernicious effects of excessive screen time is compelling. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting a child’s use of TV, movies, and video and computer games to no more than 1 or 2 hours a day. Too much screen time has been linked to behavioural problems, impaired academic performance and, of course, less time for play.

In India, a recent study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India shows excessive Internet browsing can also lead to negative outcomes such as social isolation, depression, insomnia and obesity. The study defined over 5 hours of Internet usage daily as “excessive", and said teenagers (in the age group of 12-18) are most vulnerable to these risks.

Playing video games isn’t any less harmful. Studies have claimed that too much time spent playing such games can lessen a child’s attention span as much as the idiot box. Researchers at Iowa State University found in a 2010 study that children who spend more than 2 hours daily playing video games are 67% more likely to suffer from attention problems compared with those who play less. According to them, watching TV and playing video games appear to have roughly the same link to attention problems, even though the latter is considered a less passive activity.

A more important concern is that these issues arise with the simple act of engaging with screen devices, without even taking into account the kind of content flowing through them and its effect on a child’s physical and psychological well-being.

Parents need to be cautious about the addictive potential of television and the Net—an addiction that can change a child’s conception of reality. Television or the Internet can at best serve as a social and cultural digression, not a destination. Though these technologies are here to stay and play an important role in our lives, children still need the balance that comes from outdoor activities, friends and family, solid academic skills, and healthy relationships with strong adult role models.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies

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