A QF expert talks about the negative effects of increased screen time during the pandemic
With the excessive use of electronics during the COVID-19 pandemic, and an increased reliance on the internet for work, school, and social communication, many concerns have emerged on the impact of technology on a child’s mental and physical well-being.
An observation made by Qatar Foundation’s (QF) school’s crisis and well-being team on the impact of technology on the brain and body noted that there has been an increase in screen usage among students due to distance learning, social interaction, electronic games, social media, and other factors.
Dr. Tracy Hardister, Director at The Learning Center (TLC), part of QF’s Pre-University Education, highlights the recent global data that indicates a majority of children between the ages of 6 and 12 in the US are spending at least 50 percent more time in front of screens each day during the pandemic. “Since there is no specific statistic for Qatar, given the current situation, I assume it is a similar amount – of increased time,” Dr. Hardister says.
Impact on mental health
As children are still developing, the frequent exposure to technology changes the wiring of their brains. “When children are exposed to technology at high rates, their brain gets used to quickly processing multiple sources of information, which stimulate connections between brain cells, creating new neural pathways between different parts of their brains,” Dr. Hardister explains.
And it is not only children who are affected by the excessive use of technology, the mental and physical health of adults can also be severely impaired.
Excess amounts of screen time impact our neurological functioning, causing our bodies to experience increased stress, it contributes to poor self-regulation of our moods, which includes irritability, decreased frustration tolerance, and anger
“Excess amounts of screen time impact our neurological functioning, causing our bodies to experience increased stress that activates the fight or flight response – a response that is only intended to ensure our survival in a crisis, and which leads to the production of a hormone called cortisol, or the stress hormone. The release of this hormone results in hyperarousal, and causes an increase in blood pressure, reduces concentration, impairs memory functioning, and contributes to poor self-regulation of our moods. This poor self-regulation includes irritability, decreased frustration tolerance, and anger,” the doctor explains.
Impact on sleep
Increased levels of technology use can also have a significant effect on children’s sleep. It is imperative to ensure that children get adequate sleep that is not less than 12 hours for those aged 12 and below, during this stressful period.
Data points to the fact that screen time overstimulates the nervous system, and it causes an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate even hours after using electronics, which makes it difficult to fall asleep. In fact only a few minutes of screen time can delay the release of melatonin by several hours and negatively affect children’s body clocks.
I encourage parents to have a discussion with their children about the negative impacts of increased screen time, and to provide fun and engaging replacement activities for their children
“Using a family media plan can help find balance between electronics and the rest of daily life, which will help with sleep patterns. Parents should turn off electronics two hours before bed and set a good example by engaging in healthy activities, such as physical exercise, face-to-face family time, cooking, and having their own technology breaks,” Dr. Hardister says.
Supporting parents, teachers, and school staff
Shifting to distance learning, QF’s school’s crisis and well-being team recognized the importance of supporting the social and emotional well-being of not just students, but of parents, teachers, and staff as well.
“We have emphasized that social and emotional well-being are a priority during COVID-19 distance learning and social isolation. Parents and adults play a key role in assisting children and adolescents by being present, listening, and encouraging them to verbalize and process their experience and sense of stress related to the pandemic,” Dr. Hardister says.
However, Dr. Hardister highlights that although it is important for parents to be empathic and flexible to support their children during this unprecedented time, shifting to an “anything goes” or “laissez faire” approach to parenting will not serve their children well during this pandemic. “Children and adolescents need the adults in their lives to reassure them that we will get through this together,” she explains.
Alternative ways of fun
According to experts, the ideal time to spend in front of a screen, irrespective of the pandemic, should not exceed two hours for children and adolescents – a challenge for parents as children feel that technology is their only way to communicate with the outside world.
“I encourage parents to be flexible during COVID-19, as children and adolescents are using devices to socialize and connect with their peers through video chats, gaming together, or in other ways. Rather than over-policing screen time, I encourage parents to have a discussion with their children about the negative impacts of increased screen time, and to provide fun and engaging replacement activities for their children,” Dr. Hardister says.
Many parents of QF students were able to develop, and facilitate a variety of fun, engaging, and playful activities for their children such as arts and craft, cooking, painting, puzzles, board games, and reading – activities that encourage children to be creative, playful, and engage in movement.
But with the easing of restrictions, and allowing families to go to beaches and parks, some children may prefer to stay at home to not get away from their screens.
“In this case, children may need encouragement from parents to go out to play, and have fun and exercise,” Dr. Hardister suggests. “I encourage parents to make the beach enticing by including some fun beach toys and water floaties. Parents are encouraged to engage in outdoor activities, such as evening family walks or bike rides.”