Why screen time is the wrong measure to focus on.
Most schools are conducting online classes, sparking concerns about excessive screen time. Online safety is a different issue – children being contacted by strangers or visiting undesirable websites. Here we deal with the first question, is there a safe limit for online classes and if so, what is it?
But before getting into that, what is the concern about excessive screen time? I spoke to paediatricians, psychiatrists, ophthalmologists and educationists to get the answer to this. Ophthalmologists are concerned about the strain to the eyes. Paediatricians and psychiatrists are concerned about obesity and behavioural disturbances. Educationists worry about delivering an engaging and effective programme.
The interesting thing that all the experts said was the following: not all screen time is equal. Some types of screen time during COVID which help children are beneficial. Time spent connecting to other children or adults and communicating with them directly (not through social media posts), solving puzzles and interactive exercises are better than passive screen time where the child is staring at moving images like watching Youtube or Netflix.
According to Dr Ashish Sharma, an ophthalmologist at Lotus Eye Hospital and Institute, Coimbatore, there are short and medium to long-term effects on the eyes due to excessive screen time. In the short term, dry eyes and irritation are common, because people tend to blink less when looking at a screen. The medium to long term impact of excessive focus on near objects can cause the progression of myopia. In severe cases, double vision and squint could also be further complications. Dr Sharma says that for kids less than two years, zero screen time is recommended. For kids greater than 2 years, there is no specific evidence-based number.
The problem here is that the average child already spends a lot of “bad screen” time. According to many studies, the average child spends between 2 hours to 3 hours every day on a gadget/screen passively (this was pre-COVID when no online classes were happening).
So, what can we do to address the above concerns, while ensuring our children are not losing out on essential learning? Proper lighting, positioning and the use of larger, low brightness screens can reduce eye strain. Lighting and positioning are vital while performing any task which is near to the eyes like reading and knitting too. Besides, here are five specific guidelines for parents to maximise the benefits of screen time while avoiding the negatives:
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule. 20-minute activity on-screen, rest 20 seconds while focusing on an object more than 20 feet away. This is good practice to do for any short distance activity including reading a book.
- Take a 10 to 20-minute break every 40 to 60 minutes without any digital activities before returning to the screen. Constantly moving eyeballs are good, so activities like catching a ball, especially outdoors are ideal during breaks.
- Restrict general browsing on the internet, watching movies and playing video games. This is probably the most important aspect for parents; one idea is to allow these activities only on weekends for set periods of time.
- No devices should be allowed in the bedroom and no screen activity one hour before bedtime to ensure children get restful sleep (the blue light from the screens right before bedtime can interfere with sleep rhythms).
- Encourage your child to be physically active for at least one hour every day – running, jumping etc. Some form of aerobic exercise along with strength training is ideal and the mix depends on the age of the student.
From an educationist’s perspective, online classes need not involve students looking at the screen all the time too. Mrs Nithya Sundaram, the Academic Director at CS Academy Schools, Coimbatore and Programme Leader for Cambridge Professional Development Qualifications says “There are non-screen activities built into the programme which are then reported back on screen. For example, students in math class are asked to work-out problems offline on paper. So often, a 40-minute online class involves only 20 minutes of screen time.”
So, there is no magic number for “safe” hours on screen. Most schools in the world now have online classes between 2 sessions a day to 6 sessions (of 40 to 50 minutes each), depending on the grade (Grades 1 to 12). Attending three sessions without any of the precautions stated above is worse than attending six sessions with precautions taken. What matters most is to ensure the above guidelines are followed – if screen time is divided into chunks and adequate rest is given, online classes should be safe.