COVID-19: Are kids in UAE turning into screen addicts after distance learning?

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Children aged eight to 18 consume about eight to 10 hours of media content per day, not including for work or for school.
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Dubai: The COVID-19 lockdown has worsened children’s screen-time addiction and put them at greater risk of mental health issues, experts in Dubai have warned..

Parents must moderate children’s screen-time especially now as many students will be taking several hours of online classes daily as the new term begins from August 30, a webinar titled ‘Over Exposure to Screen Time’said this week. The virtual event was led by child psychologist Dr Mona Ibrahim Youssri from Hayati Health Centre in Dubai.

“From aggressive behaviour and decrease in social skills to attention problems and a rise in sleep problems,” children have been impacted by more screen-time as a result of staying home all day, said Dr Youssri, the centre’s clinical director and family counsellor.

Schools were forced to close in March because of the pandemic and movement restrictions meant children were confined to home for months. They spent hours daily facing screens for online classes and followed it up with video games and internet browsing to kill time.

Heavy consumers

It is estimated that children aged eight to 18 consume about eight to 10 hours of media content per day, not including for work or for school, according to the American Academy of Paediatrics.

Dr Youssri warned “a percentage” of such heavy users “will show up in clinics in a few months” if they continue spending so much time in front of the screen.

Most vulnerable

Especially at risk are very young children as the brain is still growing and developing in the first three years, she added.

“Almost every pre-schooler between two and four who visits our centre showing signs of developmental delay is skilfully using their parents’ smart phone.”

Children below three should have “zero screen-time”. Parents who wean off such young children from electronic devices have seen “dramatic improvement” in their mental health in a few months.

‘Normalising aggression’

Meanwhile adolescents, especially those playing violent video games, “can’t show empathy to others” because of excessive exposure to screens. “Violent video games normalise aggression,” Dr Youssri said.

More screen-time means more space for abusive behaviour online. Teenagers are at risk of exploitation by child abusers online, she warned. In fact, some children, especially boys, are at risk of becoming “molesters” themselves.

Sexting pitfalls

“Sexting is a big issue. Maybe he watches something not right for his age and he tries to victimise younger children and he becomes a molester at a young age.

“With girls, ‘it’s ok’ or ‘cool’ to do sexting – and then someone puts it on social media… They can be subject to dangerous human traffickers and child abusers,” Dr Youssri said.

‘It’s like giving your children drugs’

The “sensory overload” from screen-time mimics the effects of drugs, releasing the “feel-good hormone” dopamine.

“This has addictive properties. That’s why children scream when you take away the gadget. They’re not acting, it’s like taking away the drug from them.

“A full day of screen-time exposure is like giving your children drugs. This is a very serious issue.”

During the webinar, Dr Youssri also discussed signs of screen-time addiction and ways to manage it.

Fight the good fight

“Don’t shout at your children but don’t submit to them either. You have to win this fight of screen-time, because if your children win, they will actually loose,” she said.

However, she drew a line between unhealthy screen-time and online classes.

Distance learning

“In schooling online, children are interacting with their teachers and friends. It’s helping them emotionally to see their teachers and friends again. But there shouldn’t be a full day – like eight hours – of online lessons… Let them attend the obligatory lessons and they can catch up on the optional ones, if needed, sometime later on.”

After online classes, “make sure the children do things not related to screens”.

Signs your child could have screen addiction

Increased screen time and inability of the child to control it (unable to put it down).

Bored and losing interest in any other activity, even if previously enjoyed.

Is preoccupied with games or videos and talks about them constantly, even when not engaged.

Refuses to meet with friends. Prefers staying home alone to any social activity.

Withdrawal symptoms; expresses anger through tantrums if a gadget is taken away.

Becomes deceptive, lies about usage time, or sneaks a gadget into bed behind your back.

Increased tolerance for play, so if one hour was satisfying before, two hours now are not.

Is only happy when screen-facing.

What should parents do

At least one parent should be familiar and updated with the kinds of popular apps children use

There should be an agreement or way to see children’s social media activity

Don’t shout at children, explain why limiting screen-time is important and gradually bring down the hours

For early years, there should be zero screen-time

Find new ways of enjoying family time, away from the screen

Go on a screen-free short trip or weekend

Be a role model. Don’t be on the screen when not working

Be aware of settings like parental locks, age-appropriate content, ad blockers, and passwords

Create tech-free zones in the living room or on the kitchen table

If the symptoms of screen addiction are exaggerated (meltdowns, extreme anger, for example), seek out professional help

(source: Dr Mona Ibrahim Youssri, Hayati Health Centre, Dubai)

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