Eddie* has a choleric temperament which made him difficult for people to deal with. When he was just over two years old, he was given a tablet to play with. After that, he spent a lot of time in front of the screen.
At the age of eight, his parents brought him to Asst Prof Wimontip Musikaphan, a lecturer at the Human Development National Institute for Child and Family Development, Mahidol University. Since the age of six, Eddie had problems socialising. He could not understand his friends’ facial expressions when they did not want to play with him and he continued to pester them.
In Grade 2, he became furious when other classmates were able to read and write, but he could not. Since he did not know how to express himself, he often screamed and threw tantrums. His classmates later ignored him which caused him to dislike going to school.
“His negative behaviours were the result of addiction to the tablet. I told his parents frankly, that he must immediately quit using digital devices. Since Eddie was attached to his father, I suggested that his father reduce his working hours and spend more time with his son. Eddie’s father took my advice and Eddie’s behaviour improved after six months,” said Asst Prof Wimontip.
Eddie is one of many cases of children who suffer from the negative effects of screen addiction. In 2020, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Rajanagarindra Institute conducted a survey involving 15,000 children and adolescents aged from six to 18. The results of the survey indicated that most respondents spent 35 hours per week in front of a screen which was higher than the recommended standard of not over 16 hours per week.
Asst Prof Wimontip mentioned that research abroad found that children are increasingly exposed to screens at a younger age, especially in Asia. Children start using screens at just a bit over two years old.
To prevent cases like Eddie, Amarin Baby & Kids organised two forums — “Is It The Screen’s Fault Or the Parents’ Fault?” conducted by Asst Prof Wimontip; and “Virtual Autism: A Silent Danger To Screen-Addicted Children That Parents Need To Be Aware Of” conducted by Dr Pornchanok Wantanakorn, a paediatrician at Phyathai 3 Hospital.
In Eddie’s case, people may wonder how screen addiction affected him. Dr Pornchanok pointed out that from birth to three years is a golden age.
“It is a period for language and social development. Parents are the best influence for children. Children cannot speak if parents do not communicate with them. Communication requires interaction. When children engage with screens, it is one-way communication, not two-way communication,” explained Dr Pornchanok.
Asst Prof Wimontip added that children have to learn from real life interactions.
“If children do not interact with parents or other people, they will not learn and understand facial expressions. They will develop social problems. For example, Eddie did not understand his friends’ facial expressions, so he did not realise that they did not want to play with him. Learning a language requires interaction. Children need people to answer questions that arise in their mind throughout the day. These responses and interactions help children develop language skills. Screens cannot respond like humans do,” explained Asst Prof Wimontip.
“Some parents who allow children a lot of screen time misunderstand that their children are good at language because they can remember letters or some foreign language phrases. However, memorising phrases does not mean they can effectively communicate,” Dr Pornchanok added.
Both Dr Pornchanok and Asst Prof Wimontip agree that children from birth to two years should not be given digital devices with screens to play with. From the age of two to five, if necessary, screen time should not exceed one hour per day. Dr Pornchanok explained that children can use screens for five to 10 minutes and take a break. Throughout the day, they should not use screens longer than 60 minutes. For children older than five, screen time should not exceed two hours in a day.
“In the US, children aged 18 to 24 months are allowed to use screen devices, but only for communication purposes such as for FaceTime or Skype. Beyond these limited uses, it is crucial for children to interact with humans and other living creatures. For instance, if parents want to educate their children about elephants, they should take children to a zoo to see actual elephants instead of showing them elephants on a tablet,” said Dr Pornchanok.
In addition to causing negative effects on language development and learning facial expressions, screen addiction can harm children’s eyes, especially when screens are used in the dark.
“Besides damaging children’s eyesight, excessive screen time interrupts routine physical movements. Children should learn to move and stretch, so their bodies develop physical skills. When they are involved in physical activity, they also use their imagination and creativity. However, using screens does not require any imagination,” said Asst Prof Wimontip.
How much screen time is too much? Asst Prof Wimontip explained that excessive screen time is more obvious in older children when it interrupts their everyday activities. This can be seen when they refuse to get up to have a meal or do other activities because they are so addicted to their device.
Some children who are addicted exhibit symptoms similar to autism. Dr Pornchanok explained that the symptoms referred to, “virtual autism”, is not a medical term.
Autism is a condition that arises from abnormalities in the brain, affecting language usage and verbal communication. Three main symptoms of autism include delayed language development, difficulty making eye contact, and often displaying fixation or intense interest in repetitive activities.
“If any children exhibit all three symptoms, parents should take them to see a paediatrician for a diagnosis to determine if they have autism or not. Children with ‘virtual autism’ also display similar symptoms to those with actual autism. They tend to speak less, avoid eye contact, consistently keep their eyes on screens and repeatedly watch the same programmes. Most children with ‘virtual autism’ show improvement after giving up screen use and having more interaction with people,” said Dr Pornchanok.
Playing with children can help them develop skills. However, many parents do not know how to play with their children, so they resort to screens to entertain them instead. Asst Prof Wimontip commented that she understands that not all parents like or are good at playing with kids, but people can always find time for something they believe is important. Therefore, if parents realise that their children are important, they can arrange quality time with them.
“In Japan, studies indicate that the golden period for shaping children’s development is confined to the first 12 years. If parents dedicate quality time and effort to not spoil their children for the first 12 years, they will develop normally in all aspects according to age. After that, they will begin to stand on their feet and will be able to rely on themselves. Twelve years is not that long. After 12 years of dedication and investment, parents will reap a satisfying reward,” concluded Asst Prof Wimontip.
*Not his real name