Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

07 September 2017

When Screens Harm Our Children

"You've been playing on this tablet for 2 hours.  Now, you
are going to watch TV in your bedroom!"
When Screens Harm Our Children
by Sophie Davaris, ABO+, Tribune de Genève, 26 August 2017 - translation

See also the previous post, « Uses of Digital Technology : Risks to Health »

Health: Exposure to tablets, TV, and smartphones alter the development of toddlers. In Geneva, doctors and teachers are sounding the alarm

By age 7, a child will have spent an entire year of his life in front of a screen. At age 18, three whole years. The British Medical Journal’s 2012 report sends shivers up the spine. Since spring, voices are raising to denounce the dangers of TV, smartphones, tablets and other consoles for babies and young children. Dazzled by these devices which sometimes even captivate us, we have under-estimated their negative effects on our offspring.

At the end of May, Le Monde published a warning from twelve professionals. Pediatricians and child psychiatrists, psychologists, speech and language pathologists raised a “major public health issue”. Overexposure to digital technology causes a host of ailments. Whatever the social environment, these specialists describe children who are not developing normally: they do not speak, they do not communicate, they are very agitated or, conversely, they are passive. According to the authors, these disorders are similar to the symptoms of autism, with the major difference that they disappear when screens are removed.

Geneva doctors are concerned

What about Geneva ? « We notice exactly the same thing and are very alarmed », says Nathalie Nanzer, deputy physician in charge of the Child Guidance Unit at Geneva’s university hospital (HUG). The child psychiatrist highlights the danger of screens for children under age 2 to 3; beyond that age, according to her it is less serious. “Faced with screens before the age of one, children experience great developmental delays. Towards age 2-3, hyperactive and disorganized, they cannot concentrate. At age 3 to 4, some children are without language and without interaction. They do not look at you, do not know how to say hello or to ask something from their mother.” These are toddlers who are awkward in their walking and gestures. “Some have never held a pencil! They do not know how to play Lego, they get upset, and send everything flying.”

On her side, the psychologist Anne Spira regrets the use of the “screen-nanny”. She reminds us how a baby needs a person who adapts to him/her with finesse. “The adult helps translate and contain the emotions of the young child. He decodes, rephrases, and adds nuance. A screen does not adapt itself. It limits experiences and blocks the imagination, while a child must be able to develop his five senses, play with objects which have weight, texture, smell, and to invent stories from scratch…”

Conscious of the problem, the Department of Child and Youth Health (SSEJ) produced a note in July on the risks of digital technology to health, which must be sent to teachers at the beginning of the school year. In addition to the disorders already described, the SSEJ recalls that screens affect sleep and eyesight; they could promote the development of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Screens even in the park

This is not all: early exposure to screens disturbs psychic well-being and socio-affective development and promotes attention deficit, SSEJ insists. Captivated by TV or a video game, some children are reluctant to make an effort and no longer support frustration. “A teacher seems very bland next to a screen parading rapid, colorful images”, summarizes Nathalie Nanzer and Anne Spira.

But is this debate new? Television was already accused of all kinds of evils in the 1970’s. « There is a difference : now, screens , mobile and numerous, are following us everywhere », remarks Nathalie Nanzer. What parent, in fact, has never taken with them a tablet or a DVD player when travelling? Some families keep the screen on during meals, others take them to the park.

Clear rules

So, should we throw away all screens? Anne Spira recommends strict control with small children: not more than 30 minutes a day. “Whatever the rule, it must be clear. We must not negotiate ceaselessly,” adds Dr. Nanzer. “In the beginning, the child will have enormous crises, like a person lacking his drug.” But in little time, children calm down and find other interests, assures the doctor. “We think that they are going to suffer but no! Spontaneously, they want to discover the world. A child needs to play, to read, to speak, and even to get bored!”

It remains to convince the adults. Many have found screens to be a practical way of occupying the child, leaving time for themselves. Some are dependent on it. “There exists homes where the TV is switched on permanently”, notes Nathalie Nanzer. Others believe in the virtues of technology. “They offer a tablet to their child, thinking they are doing good. They are surprised when they are made aware of the risks.”

If screens are so harmful, how can we explain the timidity of the warnings up to now? “There was a latency period. We are only starting now to step back”, replies Dr. Martine Berger, Director of the Child and Youth Health Service (SSEJ).

Stephan Eliez : « Competencies can be rewarded, but not always »

For child psychiatrist Stephan Eliez, Director of the Medico-Pedagogical Office, “there was a kind of idealization of screens. The technology is socially valued, the talk remains ambivalent as some experts feared being seen as out-dated.”

Stephan Eliez says that by age 9, the screen has become the leading source of entertainment in Switzerland. European pre-teens spend an average of 35 hours a week in front of screens, distinguishing television from tablets and interactive consoles. “These games deliver rewards but are programmed to allow success to be irregular. This generates surprise and produces expectation. Practically lacking in content and very distant from the real world, these programs deprive the brain of essential stages in its development, while cartoons or films have a story-line with social content, even stereotyped.”
Without dramatizing, Stephan Eliez deems it essential to deliver a word of caution: « Parents need to be informed of the impoverishment caused by excessive exposure to screens. Meta-analyses have shown that time spent in front of a screen is inversely correlated with academic success. More broadly, the child is restricted in his capacity for attention and intellectual, linguistic and social development.

Stephan Eliez warns that «skills not acquired at a certain age can be compensated, but not always completely.” When must we be worried? “If a child does not make sentences at age two and a half, it is worth making an evaluation.” But he is confident: “Parents want to ensure the best for their child. If they are warned, they will react.” S.D.

« Pupils who get quickly bored and don’t know how to occupy themselves »

A third primary school teacher (pupils aged 6 to 7) at the Chateaubriand School in Pâquis, Tamara Rios says that “children spend lots of time in front of screens and they are exposed to them at younger and younger ages”. Last year, in her class, two pupils had a telephone, many others, tablets. According to her, “excess consumption” affects nearly half of them. “For some of them, vocabulary remains poor, especially in the higher grades.” How do we know if the problem is related to screens? The young woman has a method: at the beginning of the year, she asks the pupils about their habits. “Sometimes, it’s well-managed, first homework, then an hour or two on screens. Others do as they please, switching on the TV as soon as they come home from school.”

The teacher observes behavioral problems in these children. “They get bored quickly, stressed at the idea of doing nothing and not knowing how to occupy themselves freely. They have lots of games, books, and workshops available but remain distraught, she regrets. They adopt an aggressive language, sometimes very vulgar. They use words which are not appropriate for their age and have unusual gestures: they strangle, slap violently.”

Fighting against the « banalization of screens », Tamara Rios raises the subject with parents. “Some are very surprised. Others consider that it is an important subject that I have done well to raise. And there are parents, ill at ease, who avoid the conversation.” The teacher advises fixing rules, watching programs viewed by the child and accompanying him on the Internet. “It suffices just once to fall on something shocking.” She also recommends simply going outdoors to play with their children. “Letting them be bored is necessary. It encourages imagination.” S.D.

Nothing before age 3!

Switzerland, like France and Belgium, recommends not exposing children to screens before age 3. Afterwards, one must limit screen time to 15 minutes per day. Canada recommends avoiding all screens before age 2, then to spend no more than one hour a day between age 2 and 4. The adult must choose adapted programs and if possible, watch them with the child. Finally, it is advised not to place a screen in children’s bedrooms. S.D.

Original article in French:

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