New Delhi: Arunima Ganguly, a little over four now, held a smartphone in her hands for the first time over a year ago. The vivid display and stunning colours immediately caught her imagination.
Today, Arunima is hooked on to the digital world after school hours and during holidays.
For four-year-old Akshini Dixit, who lives in Mumbai, love for the tablet came instantly the moment her father brought one home two years ago. Today, from watching rhymes on YouTube to playing various downloaded games, the screen is slowly taking over the outdoor fun – once a staple for her – and the time with family and friends.
Arunima and Akshini (real names) are not alone. The screen addiction – in the form of smartphones, tablets, iPads and laptops – is witnessing a phenomenal rise among the Indian toddlers and the future is not all that bright, experts warn.
“I am concerned at the heavy use of digital technology that is happening at the expense of human interaction in toddlers today. It can have long-lasting negative effects on their mental health,” stresses Dr Shilpa Aggarwal, child and youth psychiatrist from Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital in Mumbai.
“This can have an impact on the toddlers’ capacity to regulate themselves emotionally and affect healthy communication, social interaction and creative play,” Dr Aggarwal told IANS.
The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) discourages any amount or type of screen media and screen time for children under two years of age and no more than one to two hours of total screen time per day for children older than two years.
While some parents use digital media platforms for providing learning in the form of nursery rhymes and elementary-level teaching videos to their toddlers, others use the gadgets just for keeping them engaged at the dinner time or when they want some time alone.
However, clinical experience shows that in very young children, the use of digital technology as a pacifier is happening at the expense of the much-needed recreational time with other toddlers and family members.
“Excessive screen use at the cost of human interaction can affect social-communication skills and family bonding in the toddlers,” stresses Dr Sameer Malhotra, director (mental health and behavioural sciences) at Max Super Speciality Hospital in New Delhi.
Recent evidence from neuro-imaging studies shows that screen addiction in toddlers can result in several cognitive deficits and information processing problems.
“This means that if toddlers are exposed to a large amount of screen time early on, it could manifest in the form of cognitive deficits later on in life,” warns Dr Aggarwal.
Undeniably, there are many apps offering opportunities for the kids to develop skills related to planning, strategising and problem-solving.
“However, such opportunities cannot serve as a substitute for the unstructured and more conventional forms of interactions and socialisation in the real world,” adds Dr Samir Parikh, director (mental health and behavioral sciences) at Fortis Heathcare.
Imaginative play and group activities help toddlers learn the value of sharing, trust building, empathy, teamwork, abstract thinking and other communication skills necessary to prepare them to be adept at dealing with the social and emotional demands in the future.
Screen addiction can also put kids at the risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
“One case in particular I remember when a toddler who showed symptoms of ASD was responding only to images on ipad and was found addicted to the screen. After he was admitted to a play school, the access to unstructured play with other toddlers helped him develop socio-emotional skills,” said Satinder K Wali, child psychologist at BLK Super Speciality Hospital.
An overuse of digital technology can directly impact the child’s overall social and emotional development as it would restrict their exposure to the stimuli in the real world, with a greater preoccupation in the virtual world of technology, the experts say.
“Overdependence could lead to social alienation and deprivation of the opportunities to interact with peers and significant others which are vital to understand the nature of reciprocity and socio-emotional development of the child,” stresses Dr Parikh.
The screen addiction can also hamper language and speech development.
“We are witnessing more cases of expressive speech delays because of excessive exposure to screen time. I would say that with too many gadgets around, these are the warning signs of early childhood problems like autism, speech delays and lack of social skills,” warns Dr Preeti Singh, clinical psychologist with Paras Hospitals in Gurgaon.
Extreme cases of addiction can cause structural change in the brain. “It can lead to impaired cognitive functioning, impulse inhibition, increased sensitivity to rewards and insensitivity to loss,” Dr Singh emphasises.
While there are some parents who are concerned about their child’s overdependence on technology as a primary means of leisure, it is more common for them to express such concerns and seek help as the child grows older.
“It happens when the excessive screen use begins to interfere in their studies and other areas of functioning,” notes Dr Parikh.
For the parents, the need of the hour may be to limit the screen exposure for their toddlers and let the tiny souls explore the world on their own.