Nowadays, watching TV and playing electronic games have become popular forms of entertainment among most children. It is not uncommon to find a child engrossed in a game or video on a TV, phone, or tablet. However, it is important to consider the potential risks that excessive screen time may pose. Dr Michael Kalisa, a paediatrician at Dream Medical Centre (DMC) in Kicukiro, suggests that young children who excessively engage in activities such as watching TV, playing video games, or using smartphones are at a higher risk of experiencing social and emotional problems as well as attention disorders. ALSO READ: Is screen time bad for children’s brains? “In addition, children who are excessively exposed to screens develop an appetite for the junk food that is advertised on TV. They also tend to overeat while busy on their electronics and this puts them at a great risk of gaining a lot of weight,” he noted. Kalisa emphasised that spending extended periods of time in front of screens can make it difficult to fall asleep, potentially causing irregular sleep patterns in children. He pointed out that lack of sleep can result in fatigue, which can affect their attentiveness at school. ALSO READ: The negative impact of too much screen time on children He stated that children who have televisions or screens in their bedrooms are more likely to have poor academic performance compared to those who do not have them. Kalisa said some content on TV and social media platforms is of a violent nature, highlighting that too much exposure for children poses a risk of desensitisation to violence, seeing it as a normal way to solve issues. Also as children spend too much time on screens, they do not have enough time to play and socially interact with others, he added. Sight issues Extended screen time can cause eye strain, which is particularly concerning for young children. When children spend long periods staring at screens, their blink rate tends to decrease. As a result, it is important to encourage them to blink more frequently in order to keep their eyes moist, according to Kalisa. “Position screens at a distance of at least one metre away to minimise eye strain. It is also recommended that the screen be positioned in a way that the child looks slightly down, not up when watching TV programmes.” Kalisa clarified that screens are not inherently negative, but rather the concern lies in their usage. He emphasised the importance of children engaging in non-screen activities such as sports, dance classes, music, art, and other pursuits. He recommended that parents lead by example by limiting their own screen time and dedicating quality time to their children. “Most importantly, select age-appropriate TV programmes suitable for viewing. It is imperative to watch programmes with children and talk to them about what they see, it could be about family values or other educative programmes.” He advised against having TVs, smartphones, and computers in children's bedrooms. Instead, he suggested keeping them in a designated area where their usage can be monitored while watching programmes. Additionally, he recommended turning off the TVs during mealtime. Suitable screen time “Children under 18 months old are advised to limit their exposure to screens, with the exception of video chatting with loved ones. Instead, they should engage in interactive activities and face-to-face interactions to promote early development,” said Dr Christella Ishimwe, a clinical psychologist at mHub Rwanda, a mental health clinic located in Kicukiro. From 18 months to five years, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality educational programmes. Parents should be actively involved and help children understand what they are watching, Ishimwe noted. Children of six to 18 years must consistently limit recreational screen time, ensuring it doesn’t interfere with sleep, physical activity, or other essential behaviours. “Boost a balanced mix of activities including outdoor play, social interactions, and educational pursuits,” Ishimwe advised. Screen time becomes excessive when it starts to have a negative impact on a child’s physical, mental, or social well-being. When is it too much? Ishimwe noted that screen time is considered too much if it is leading to a lack of physical activity and exercise, which can contribute to health issues like obesity or musculoskeletal problems. ALSO READ: Covid-19: How rising screen time disrupts learning experience Also, excessive screen time is when it interferes with regular sleep patterns, leading to sleep deprivation or poor quality sleep, and prolonged screen use affects a person’s ability to concentrate, focus, or perform tasks that require sustained attention, she added. “If screen time is linked to increased stress, anxiety, or mood disturbances, or if it replaces in-person social interactions, potentially leading to social isolation or difficulties in building and maintaining relationships, and if excessive screen use starts to negatively impact academic or professional responsibilities, then it is excessive,” Ishimwe stated. When screen time interferes with basic self-care tasks, household chores, or other important responsibilities, or if it leads to the consumption of content that is not suitable for the person’s age or is potentially harmful, it must be limited, she noted. Alternative entertainment Ishimwe highlighted that there are numerous alternatives to TV that offer a wide range of entertainment and enrichment; for instance, books, comics, and novels. Engage in interactive, strategic games that stimulate critical thinking, problem-solving, and social skills like board games and puzzles, and provide art supplies for drawing, painting, sculpting, and other creative projects. Also, introduce musical instruments, dance routines, or even just dancing to favourite tunes, and involve children in age-appropriate cooking or baking activities. Go on hikes, and nature walks, or explore local parks to observe plants, insects, and animals, and provide building blocks, or other construction toys to encourage creativity, spatial awareness, and fine motor skills. Use educational apps and interactive games that teach various subjects while being engaging and fun, additionally, let your child cultivate their own garden, teaching them about plants, ecosystems, and responsibility. Engage in age-appropriate community service activities to instil a sense of empathy, responsibility, and civic duty, and spend quality time together as a family through activities like cooking, picnicking, hiking, or playing board games. Watching in the dark Ishimwe noted that in a dark room, the contrast between the bright screen and the surrounding darkness can be more pronounced. This can result in increased eye strain as the eyes work harder to adjust to the varying levels of brightness. She additionally said that in low light conditions, children naturally widen eyes to allow more light in. When staring at a bright screen in a dark room, this dilation can exacerbate the impact of the screen’s light on the eyes. “The combination of prolonged screen exposure and low ambient lighting can amplify the risk of digital eye strain, which includes symptoms like dry eyes, blurred vision, headaches, and discomfort,” she explained. Furthermore, exposure to the blue light emitted by screens, especially in darkness, can interfere with the production of melatonin, a hormone crucial for regulating sleep. This disruption can lead to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, Ishimwe noted. For her, artificial light, particularly the blue light emitted by screens, can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythms. This can affect sleep-wake cycles, mood, and overall well-being. She added that prolonged exposure to screens, especially in low-light conditions, can potentially affect cognitive functions such as attention, memory, and decision-making.