Gadgets for kids: Yes or no?

Enter most restaurants and chances are you’ll see most kids above the age of five (or even lesser) entertaining themselves with the help of electronic gadgets like smart phones and tablets. Ditto for flights, airports or any other ‘adult’ space that requires some amount of waiting and isn’t exactly big on the appeal factor for kids.

Gadgets have become an integral part of our lives, be it smart phones, laptops, iPods or iPads. Children even have their own toys that mimic these gadgets well, like Leapfrog products or Made in China copies of iPad style toys. They do save our lives at times (Airplane? Fussy child? Irritable co-passenger?) and seem inevitable to keep away from the kids at least for a while.

Children get addicted easily to various gadgets. The trick is in ensuring that they use them the right way. Pic: Shree D N

But as our kids bend their heads playing Subway Surfers and ignore the world passing them by, are we doing them harm by buying ourselves some free time in exchange? Are we raising a generation of children who are short on patience and unable to keep themselves engaged without distractions of any kind? How exactly do gadgets affect our kids?

Tips for parents

  • Set a time limit on gadget use
  • Monitor their use and check downloads
  • Set controls on internet usage, so that kids get to see only the safe content
  • Not all apps are about gaming. Do some research on educational yet entertaining apps available
  • Avoid being glued to your gadget in front of the kids all the time
  • Encourage board games
  • Encourage them to carry a book for long journeys, flights or restaurants
  • Stay involved with them. Devise games to keep them occupied and play them yourself.

“Why talk about the children alone?” asks Molly Choudhary, a candid mom from Benson Town. “We are so used to electronic gadgets that when I’m somewhere, like the dentist’s waiting room or the airport, I’m also on my iPhone. I do tell my daughters (8 and 12 years) not to overuse tablets or phones but I can’t tell them to stop doing something even I am guilty of!”

The downside

Dr K John Vijay Sagar, associate professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychology, NIMHANS, says there’s limited research on the effects of gadgets on kids in India.

However, he mentions that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding exposure to television and other gadgets till the age of three years. “Early exposure to gadgets is known to delay development of language and social skills. Some children may develop addiction to these gadgets, especially online gaming and use of social networking sites,” he adds.

Dr Vijay Sagar points at more research. More than half the parents in U.S. (58%) have used a tech gadget to ‘babysit’ or occupy their little one so that they didn’t have to, according to a recent study from CouponCodes4u.com. In a study done by National Institute of Education, Singapore, it was reported that 65 per cent children had access to gadgets by the age of three years and out of these, 95 per cent were using Internet on these devices.

“Physical inactivity, dry eyes and obesity can occur due to prolonged use of gadgets,” Dr Vijay Sagar warns.

Harmful for eyes?

One of the biggest worries parents have when it comes to kids getting hooked on to gadgets is how it affects their eyesight.

“Small gadgets such as mobiles or video games require prolonged near work and increased accommodation. (sic) This can worsen the existing myopia in children and cause their spectacle power to increase rapidly,” says Dr Dhanashree Ratra, senior consultant ophthalmologist, Apollo Hospitals, Bannerghatta Road.

Are they seeing more children who require glasses earlier than before? “Research by Larry K Wan has shown that in the past five years, the number of children aged between 7-9 years requiring myopic glasses has more than doubled,” Dr Ratra says citing research done in the field, adding that, “blinking is reduced due to continued staring at the computer or video screen. This causes more than normal evaporation of tears resulting in dryness. The dryness increases the eye strain.”

Many parents, like Choudhary, face that fear. “My older daughter was gifted a PSP (Play station) by her uncle for her 12th birthday. She’s so much on it during holidays that my biggest fear is for her eyesight.”

“As doctors, we would not advise unsupervised or prolonged use of electronic gadgets by very young children. Limited period viewing with frequent breaks, proper lighting and distance is recommended,” says Dr Ratra.

MK Khatri, father to a 15-year-old, says though his daughter doesn’t own any gadgets of her own yet, she has easy access to the two laptops and smartphone at home. “I’ve never given it much thought (about) whether she is spending more time on them but going by her behaviour, I don’t think so,” he feels. As a dad, it isn’t his daughter’s eyesight he is worried about but the sites she is browsing. “I do check the history but today’s kids are smarter than us,” he adds laughing.

The upside

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say. Gadgets too could be useful at times. For second time mother Sharmishtha Kulkarni, the smartphone has been handy in keeping her older son occupied and teaching him math while the younger one needed her attention. “I downloaded some fun math apps for him, as well as some interactive books.”

Kulkarni doesn’t mind her son using it on and off. “His little brother is 5-months-old and has demands that cannot be ignored, my older one is only 6-years-old, so if it helps to keep him happy for a while and keep my sanity intact, then why not? Plus I make sure whatever he plays with is usually educational.”

Dr Priya Nagar is a professor in a dental college and a busy but hands-on mum. Her daughter Vibhuti, 7, has access to the myriad gadgets at home but Dr Nagar makes sure that she sets enough limits on their usage. She does feel that in today’s wired world and lives, gadgets play an important role in widening horizons and teaching kids many things.

Medically too, electronic gadgets could sometimes help. “TV can help children with poor vision due to conditions such as retinopathy of prematurity in maintaining fixation and developing vision. Watching colorful cartoons on TV for half an hour can help improve the child’s vision. Various mobile apps can be developed to help such visually impaired children,” says Dr Ratra.

Dr John Vijay Sagar mentions that certain apps may be useful. “For example for children with developmental disorders like Autism, there are many useful apps which can be used along with the other therapeutic strategies. However this has to be done under the guidance of a trained professional,” he cautions.

Khatri says how his daughter has been using an app to learn basic French. “There are many wonderful things that they can learn. It depends on the kind of usage and guidance the parent allows and provides,” he notes.

The solution

As any doctor or child psychologist can tell you, the biggest substitute of gadgets are parents themselves. “Parents need to spend quality time with children and also encourage them to have leisure time activities like sports, music, Yoga, swimming, etc.,” Dr John Vijay Sagar says.

However, as gadgets are an intrinsic part of most our lives, he adds that parents do need to keep an eye on the kind of games children play. “They need to put time restrictions on when children can use the gadgets and encourage them to spend time with others in the family rather than with gadgets.”

Dr Nagar feels setting limits and following a timetable helps. “I’ve been very clear with my daughter that when we buy something, it has a responsibility attached and also timing. She loves sports and other activities and usually works according to a daily timetable, so her playing time with the iPad is fixed.”

Passwords are a must, feels this mother, as is checking the history regularly but the most important is setting limits. “Also, follow those rules and limits yourself first,” she adds.

Mona Sachdeva, mother of two boys under 12 years, seconds this. “We have a house rule that on weekends me and my husband don’t check our phones too much or are glued to the computer or tablet. All of us have fixed ‘electronic hours’ on weekends and the rule has set in so well that most of the times the boys forget that there are iPads and phones lying around.”

If she or her husband have to work or browse, they do it when the children are out to play or have gone to bed. “This has worked well not only for the kids but for us too. We actually do things like play board games or just sit and talk, more often now,” Sachdeva adds.

About Reshmi Chakraborty 62 Articles

Reshmi Chakraborty is a features writer and mother of a 6-year-old and a one year old. She lives near Bannerghatta Road.