Mother’s Day: ‘Mom, I want a Mobile Phone’ – The effects of digital screens on India’s youngest urbanites

New Delhi | Published: May 11, 2019 6:06:00 PM

Another way could be to find physically experiential stimuli that serve as effective substitutes, such as a sporting activity, learning a musical instrument, or even just reading physical copies of books.

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By Meghna Bal

Mobile phone maker Ericsson released a study last year on mobile phone usage amongst children living in India’s urban landscapes that revealed that 30 million of the respondents own mobile phones. Another survey by telecom operator Telenor found 62.4 percent of Indian urbanites between the ages of 9 and 18 spend up to four hours a day on their smartphones. On Mother’s Day, these astounding trends raise important questions about the effects of these devices on the mental well-being of young urban minds in India.

There is a longstanding debate on the effects of digital technology on the cognitive abilities of children. Evangelists insist that devices have a positive impact on a child’s ability to learn and absorb information. Skeptics argue that we are raising an army of digital drones with little capacity to think and infinite capacity to swipe at screens. Caught in the middle of the tussle between these two camps are the parents who run the risk of either turning their
children into pariahs if they deny them access to digital technology or exposing them to its potential perils if they capitulate.

So, what’s a parent to do? Fortunately, there is a multitude of studies on the effect of mobile phones on cognitive ability and mental health in children that can help with weighing out the final decision. A 2018 study that assessed whether there was a correlation between mobile phone ownership and academic performance amongst Irish children.

The study tracked one out of every eight children in Ireland, from the age of 9 till they turned 13. The results revealed a “statistically significant” negative relationship between academic results and mobile phone ownership. Children that owned mobile phones showed decreased abilities in reading and verbal tests as well as mathematical ability. In terms of ranking percentiles, the study found that a child owning a mobile phone from the age of 9 was at
risk of dropping 4 percentiles in an exam given at age 13.

The study concluded that it may be better to defer mobile phone availability for children in light of these results. The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) has carried out extensive studies on the impacts of children engaging with digital screens. Its findings reveal that children under the age of 2 need physical exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers for cognitive, social, motor, and language skill development.

In terms of using screens to develop cognitive skills in infants, the AAP further notes that infants under 24 months would need the assistance of an adult to understand what they see on a screen, as they do not have the capacity to understand two-dimensional images. Thus, the evidence of the cognitive benefit of screen time for toddlers is limited.

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In the preschool bracket, the AAP notes that programs like Sesame Street have a positive effect on the literacy skills of children aged 3 to 5. Unfortunately, the AAP also found that most of the applications parents find under the “educational” category on an app store have no such evidence of effectiveness and generally engender rote learning.

An AAP policy document further suggests that the problem with many studies that reveal a positive correlation between children’s interactions with digital screens and learning outcomes is that they are based on applications that are generally not available commercially.

There are also several studies emanating from the Oxford Internet Institute that seek to debunk some of the AAP’s recommendations. One study on the linkage between adolescent well-being and digital technology use found a “negative but small” correlation between the former and the latter. Specifically, the use of digital technology only accounted for a 4 percent change in well-being.

The researchers concluded that the results were not significant enough to “warrant policy change”. Notably, several studies on allied subjects published by the Oxford Internet Institute followed a similar vein. Data analysis generally results in small adverse impacts, prompting the researchers to conclude that the concerns surrounding the child-digital screen interactions may be exaggerated.

The problem with such studies is that they do little to highlight the positive effects of such interactions. As such, they are not altogether useful for
parents in search of a guide to gauge whether or not to allow their children to interact with the digital realm.

The evidence against the usage of screens and children under the age of 18, and most especially in younger children, seems to heavily outweigh the evidence in favor of it. While it is unrealistic to expect total abstention from digital interfaces, parents should endeavor to find ways to limit interactions between children and digital screens. Most phones and tablets have a lockout option, that allows parents to automatically limit screen time. Parents
can also research the digital media their children are engaging with, to ensure there is evidence of its benefits for their cognitive development, as studies found with Sesame Street.

Another way could be to find physically experiential stimuli that serve as effective substitutes, such as a sporting activity, learning a musical instrument, or even just reading physical copies of books.

(The author is a lawyer and a technology policy expert. The views contained in the article are the author’s own.)

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